It is entirely possible, by my reckoning, that the best band to come out of the 80's was Lone Justice. A California band that, like my beloved Jason and The Scorchers, straddled the line between rock and country long before words like "alt-country" or "Americana" had been invented, Lone Justice was hardly a band at all. Lead singer Maria McKee and her guitarist were the core, and by the second major label album, even he was gone.
From time to time, I work my "10 Song Theory," wherein a band is judged by nothing more than its ten best songs. When I sit here tonight and test my theory on Lone Justice, the results are pretty amazing--"East Of Eden," "I Found Love," "Shelter," "Dixie Storms," "You Are The Light," "Don't Toss Us Away," "Wheels," a scorching cover of "Working Man Blues," and the classics singles "Ways To Be Wicked" and "Sweet, Sweet Baby Mine."
The success of the songs rest, of course, on Maria McKee's voice. Part country twang, part Mazzy Star reverb, part Janis Joplin, McKee's voice is high without being baby doll and strong enough to rip through the electric guitars backing her.
It also doesn't hurt to have friends in high places. Lone Justice got to tour with U2; McKee acted as the sultry Southern siren on the video for Robbie Robertson's "Somewhere Down That Crazy River." To have Tom Petty toss "Ways To Be Wicked" their way is the kind of instant credibility that Stevie Nicks got with "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around." It said, girl, you have the pipes to rock this. Go from here.
Perhaps ironically, though, it is Steve Van Zandt, second guitarist from the E Street Band and the producer/songwriter who gave Southside Johnny a sustained career, who serves best as McKee's muse. Moving from East Coast to West Coast by way of the Deep South, he pairs with McKee as her best songwriting partner and producer of the second album (which went criminally unnoticed).
Lone Justice's best song, for my ears, is "Sweet, Sweet Baby Mine," on which Van Zandt shares writing credits with McKee and the Heartbreaker's Benmont Tench, but it is Van Zandt's paws that are all over it both musically and lyrically, including the lead guitar wailing in the background. His song allows McKee to explore that part of country that flirts with R+B. The song could easily have New Jersey horns and a funny-looking Jersey guy singing it, but McKee owns the song, her syrupy Southern drawl pulling the song closer to Memphis or Muscle Shoals.
Van Zandt also co-wrote "I Found Love," from the second album, which should have been a hit and "Shelter," which was the band's highest-charting single.
But back to my assertion that Lone Justice was a great, perhaps the greatest, 80's band. I wouldn't have said that then, probably, but I am saying it now. And that despite the fact that McKee didn't pan out as a solo artist, either. And that Lone Justice hardly registered, even in their prime. So many musical supporters tried to will their success into being, but couldn't.
But the voice, when on a strange Sunday the idea of Lone Justice enters your head, has lost nothing to the 30 years since you first heard it. It could have been iconic. It could have been one of the central American voices had things been different--strong yet vulnerable, regional yet transcendent. But it wasn't.
Except that the songs are still there. And the songs, in the way that the best songs often do, have a timeless quality to them. But for brief flourishes of instrumentation on a few of them, they have no connection to the 80's at all. They sound like a girl in a small bar trying to make her way to a big stage and, even when getting there briefly, still singing for that intimate setting. Lone Justice recorded Dylan, Haggard, Petty, Van Zandt, even traditional tunes, but they all sound like they were conceived and born by Maria McKee. She's the one who does them justice.