Singer and songwriter Maria McKee enjoys the odd claim to fame of having “broken through” to music celebrity twice—first as lead singer for the rockabilly band Lone Justice, then almost ten years later, as a solo artist. The first breakthrough, in the mid-1980s, occurred virtually overnight and earned Lone Justice what People music critic Craig Tomashoff called “a few minutes of fame”; in fact, they were the rage of Los Angeles clubs and airwaves during the summer of 1985. McKee’s vocals, in particular, were hailed as the driving force behind the band. When Lone Justice fizzled, McKee attempted to shift gears into solo work; but her first solo album fell short of expectations, and by most accounts, McKee did not return to the path promised by her early work with Lone Justice until 1993, with the release of her second solo set.
McKee’s career singing rockabilly and country music was actually not incongruent with her Los Angeles childhood. Born in Hollywood in 1965, McKee developed an early and unusual passion for 1930s Americana, artifacts of an era when country and western still reigned in rural America. This musical direction was influenced by McKee’s parents, Jack, a carpenter, and Elizabeth, a painter, both of whom also shared the ownership of a neighborhood bar; by the 1970s they had adopted Baptist doctrine and would not allow rock and roll in their home. In 1985, McKee revealed to Rolling Stone interviewer Steve Pond, “My friends used to think I was weird because I was really into the Little Rascals and the 1930s, and my favorite movie stars were people like Joan Blondell.” She further explained that she even kept her record player in her closet, maintaining, “I wanted the record to sound like it was old and far away, like a scratchy radio or something. I was really into... escaping into this era, this time of life I knew nothing about.”
McKee was also influenced by her half brother, Bryan MacLean, who played guitar with a popular 1960s psychedelic rock band called Love; McKee recalled going to L.A.’s famous Whisky A Go-Go to watch him play—though she was not yet six years old. By 1980 McKee, who would eventually drop out of Beverly Hills High, was devoting her time and talents to performing with local bands, including her brother’s. Singing at a rockabilly concert held in the parking lot of a drive-in theater, McKee so impressed a young guitarist in the audience that he called her the next day. Ryan Hedgecock told People writer Todd Gold that he “was desperate to put a band together.” That phone call would eventually blossom into Lone Justice.
For the Record…
Born c. 1965 in Hollywood, CA; daughter of Jack (a carpenter) and Elizabeth (a painter) McKee (parents co-owned a bar).
Began collaboration with guitarist Ryan Hedgecock, 1980; local club gigs as country duo led to formation of band Lone Justice, 1983, which included Marvin Etzioni on bass, Don Heffington on drums, and Tony Gilkyson (joined band c. 1984) on guitar; with Lone Justice, performed locally, 1983-1985; band signed with Geffen Records and released self-titled debut album, 1985; became solo performer and released Maria McKee, 1989.
Addresses: Record company —Geffen Records, 9130 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.
McKee recounted to Rolling Stone’s Pond how simply the connection began: “Ryan came over to my house with his guitar... and we just sat around listening to rockabilly records.” The listening gradually evolved into writing and playing together, and that collaboration led to engagements as a country duo at local clubs. McKee and Hedgecock began rather modestly, playing standards, but moved to their own music by 1983, when the duo grew into a band. They found experienced collaborators in bassist Marvin Etzioni and drummer Don Heffington, who had played with country veteran Emmylou Harris. With this line-up, Lone Justice took L.A.’s rockabilly scene by storm. McKee early on demonstrated considerable character and definition in her compositions, which, as Pond described them, “evoked a world of dust-bowl immigrants, migrant workers and skid-row habitués.”
Pond also captured the band’s reception in those first years: “Almost from the start, local critics raved about the group’s sparkling mixture of galloping two-beat country music and Rolling Stones-style rawness—and particularly about... McKee, who’s got striking, down-home good looks, a commanding stage presence, and, above all, a startling voice that captures simultaneously the sweetness of Dolly Parton and the grit of Janis Joplin.”
Within a year, the band had added guitarist Tony Gilkyson and had secured a record contract with Geffen, a major rock label. Then, music critic Jon Pareles noted in Mademoiselle, “came the hard part—making an album whose songs were as strong as McKee’s stage presence.” But veteran producer Jimmy lovine seemed equal to the challenge. The eponymous album consolidated the band’s local prominence and set a national reputation in motion; in the fall of 1985, Lone Justice hit the road. As Gold noted, praise for the album was “almost unanimous.” Writing for Rolling Stone in 1987, Jimmy Guterman recalled that the “debut album revealed an astonishingly mature new band and a blockbuster talent in irrepressible singer and primary songwriter Maria McKee.”
Although the band had little trouble living up to the high expectations set for their first album, they ultimately were not able to carry their momentum through to a second. Shelter, released in 1987, met with mixed reviews; the band’s lineup and musical format had been changed, and critics and listeners were less sanguine this time around. The band disintegrated soon thereafter. McKee detailed her part in the breakup to Chris Morris of Billboard six years later, stating, “I claim full responsibility for the lack of focus.... I was 21 years old, and I had a record company that would give me money to do anything that I wanted.... I was just confused, very confused.” At the time, however, Geffen had no intention of dismissing their still-promising songbird, and they prepared a solo album, Maria McKee, for release in 1989.
When the performance of the solo debut repeated the disappointment of Shelter, McKee decided that it was time for a hiatus from the music industry. She moved to Dublin, Ireland, in 1989, providing herself with a different atmosphere for her music. While there, she landed a single on the British charts, “Show Me Heaven,” from the soundtrack to the film Days of Thunder. Ultimately, however, she felt the experienced hindered rather than helped her, as she later told Morris: “I was flirting with all different kinds of music. I didn’t know what I was gonna do.... I had written all these weird songs, everything from cabaret music to Kate Bush music.” When she returned to Los Angeles to start work on a new album, she decided to put aside the experiments for her tried-and-true country sound.
Back with Geffen, she brought in producer George Drakoulias, who had scored recent successes with the Black Crowes and the Jayhawks. She also brought back Lone Justice mates Etzioni and Heffington. She told Morris, “I moved away, I got homesick, I missed my friends. I missed the music I grew up with, I missed that original celebration that Lone Justice had.” And You Gotta Sin to Get Saved did, in fact, recreate much of the excitement that Lone Justice had incited ten years before.
Acclaim for You Gotta Sin was essentially universal. People’s Tomashoff, for one, declared McKee “among the best vocalists and songwriters in the business.” Thorn Jurek of Detroit’s weekly Metro Times echoed the enamored accolades of the first Lone Justice reviews; he saved his greatest enthusiasm for the song “My Girlhood Among the Outlaws,” exclaiming, “[McKee’s] country wail breaks out of itself, burns down the past and becomes a vehicle for transformation and change. Her confession registers not merely as atonement, but as a promise to rise from the ashes with her soul intact.” Of the album itself, Jurek pointed out that McKee seemed finally to have reclaimed the potential of her first musical venture: “It reveals a singer exploring her talent (and its limits) in the music that inspired her in the first place. It also exposes a songwriter who has crawled back from the dark edge of an abyss to balance the ecstasies and excesses of language and sound by listening intently to the voice of her muse.”
With Lone Justice
Lone Justice, Geffen, 1985.
Shelter, Geffen, 1987.
Maria McKee, Geffen, 1989.
You Gotta Sin to Get Saved (includes “My Girlhood Among the Outlaws”), Geffen, 1993.
(Contributor) “Opelousas (Sweet Relief),” Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams, Chaos/Sony, 1993.
Billboard, July 10, 1993.
Mademoiselle, August 1985.
Metro Times (Detroit), June 30, 1993; September 22, 1993.
Musician, July 1993.
People, September 28, 1985; July 5, 1993.
Rolling Stone, July 4, 1985; February 12, 1987; August 10, 1989; September 30, 1993.
Stereo Review, October 1989.
—Ondine E. Le Blanc