Off the Record: Lone Justice masterfully blends country and rock on debut album
By Jon Marlowe
The Miami News — Thursday, May 23, 1985
The running tonsorial joke on Tom Petty from Day 1 has been this: The Gainesville boy’s biggest desire in life is to look like he stepped off the Byrds’ 1966 “Turn, Turn, Turn” album cover — long, straight, baby-fine hair; sideburns; lots of fringe, beads, vests, jeans and suede books. Cowboy meets Indian meets rock ‘n’ roll — and which one wins depends strictly on your point of fashion.
As the years went by, hair, shirts, studs, leather and headbands came into shattered, tattered, shredded vogue. Yet there was good ol’ T.P., still standing up there on stage thinking that mousse was some kind of wild animal.
Yet, if you hold onto something long enough, what goes around comes around, and all of a sudden there are 1,001 young mans trying to look and sound exactly like T.P. and/or his country-rock heroes: the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Poco and Gram Parsons.
From today’s Jason and the Scorchers to the Blasters to the Textones to R.E.M. to such oldsters as George Thorogood and Neil Young (who are claiming they’re returning to the only honest music there is, country-rock), Petty’s visual-aural approach has suddenly become au courant rather than passe.
Besides, when once-exclusively country artists such as George Strait, the (remarkable) Judds, Lee Greenwood and Hank Williams Jr. put in appearances this week on Billboard’s Top Pop LP charts, you don’t need a weathervane to know that the wind is blowing in the riveting direction of country-rock.
Of the new C-R bands, the finest is LA’s Lone Justice, whose self-titled debut Geffen LP pops into the Top Pop LP charts this week at No. 86 after being released only 10 days ago. It’s quite simply the finest debut album in recent history from a band since … well, Tom Petty. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Maria McKee, guitarist Ryan Hedgecock, bassist Marvin Etzioni and drummer Don Heffington have crafted a 10-song classic in which country’s roots twist and twine themselves around every song, while the T.P. connection is signed, sealed and beautifully delivered as the band covers Petty’s “Way to Be Wicked” and Heartbreaker Benmont Tench contributes keyboards.
The LP’s finest moment is McKee’s “After the Flood,” a stunning song of soulful inspiration spitting straight into the face of total disaster. A flood hits Maria’s home town and levels everything in sight, and years of hard work go floating right out to the sea, yet Maria decides to hang in there and rebuild her home and life once the waters subside. But just before we get misty-eyes, McKee suddenly goes quirky on us and throws in the funniest rock lyric so far in ’85:
A place to call your very own
Means so much
Though it’s a little soggy
Lone Justice’s twangy country influences continue through “Working Late,” “Soap, Soup and Salvation” and “Don’t Toss Us Away,” such an emotional gutwrencher that it sounds like the sequel to Parson’s “Love Hurts” or his “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes In the Morning.” Maria and company prove that all isn’t jingle-jangly, though, as they also crank it up to 10 for the scorching, full-out “East of Eden.”
There’s not even a mediocre song here, never mind a bad one, as McKee firmly establishes herself as premier songwriter and hypnotic vocalist. Some critics are already comparing her to Janis Joplin (these folks have the wrong record or they’ve got to be talking “Me and Bobby McGee”), because McKee doesn’t sound a thing like Joplin, but instead a fuel-injected, turbo-charged, chopped and channeled Emmylou Harris.
McKee’s cover version of Petty’s “Ways to Be Wicked” offers even more musical intrigue. With a female singing T.P.’s lyrics, they quickly take on all sorts of new double-entendre meanings until the song becomes more sensual than anything Prince recorded before he left to look for the Ladder.
Ironically enough, new bands such as Lone Justice hadn’t been born when the Byrds were redefining country-rock. Yet, Lone Justice aren’t playing the imitation game. They sincerely feel and understand this music, having learned the most important lesson of all in rock ‘n’ roll high school:
Ever since Hank Williams first went “Honky Tonkin’,” it has been impossible to tell exactly where the country line stops and the rock ‘n’ roll power begins. Lone Justice doesn’t just totally comprehend that theory, it delivers it — and as well as anyone.
Yes, that includes even Tom Petty.