Aiming for a self-described “Clash meets Cash” sound, Lone Justice failed (gracefully and even enjoyably) by not establishing what elements attracted them to either artist.
Sonically, the description is apt. Though spawned from the LA club scene and signed on a recommendation from Linda Ronstadt, their self-titled debut (here represented by six songs) had little of the mellow bask of fellow country-rock Los Angelinos like the Eagles. If not exactly punk, songs like “East of Eden” and “Working Late” pound along briskly even as both guitars and vocals have that trademark country twang. Even on the mellower second album, Shelter, the mellowness of the ballads comes more from sweeping, melancholy-tinged Nashville balladry than, say, the smug bask of the Eagles sunning themselves on a bleached Southern California sidewalk. Give singer Maria McKee this much: no matter how much of an affectation her twang and whoops sounded like (especially in her early days fronting Lone Justice), she never sounded smug. And, like it or not, she always had a big voice, one that held its own against the rowdy country banged out by the combined band.
The Best of Lone Justice (20th Century Masters: Millennium Collection)
(20th Century Masters: Millennium Collection)
US: 21 Oct 2003
UK: 20 Oct 2003
Rowdy country, sure, but to what effect? For innovators like Gram Parsons, the country sound was embraced for the country values that that sound represented. In a time of national division, when Nixon’s Silent Majority glared across the divide at protesting hippies, Parsons’s “Cosmic American Music” was intended to be a bridge between the generations. This aesthetic was explicitly outlined in “My Uncle”, where Parsons related draft dodging with the Confederate rebellion (and, by extension, the military tradition of many Southern families).
Yet, even in personal songs like “Brass Buttons”, country music was embraced for its vision of country society. And, while Ray Davies and the Kinks may have embraced English vaudevillian traditions from similar nostalgia, the moral and musical harmony Parsons heard in country music was, at least for Parsons, a possible one (as opposed to Davis waxing wistful for good old days he knows weren’t that good). Aside from music as pure sound, it should also, especially if it embraces traditions with cultural associations so deeply rooted as to be inescapable for its listeners, signify. What it signifies depends on the artist but it needs to signify to truly matter. Or even to explain why it’s taking up a mantle that has done quite well for itself without help, thankyouverymuch.
Even in terms of combining punk (as opposed to Gram Parson’s folkie rock) with country, the Lazy Cowgirls did it better. For the Cowgirls, the impervious swagger of the cowboy is combined with the anger and doubt of punk, reflecting a conflicted machismo (or would-be machismo) probably closer to the way it exists in the real world. Even without Parsons’s social agenda, the Lazy Cowgirls created a template from which to resolve the spiritual tensions between their chosen punk and country influences.
But the fondness Lone Justice had for country music never cohered with their pop chops into a unified aesthetic. Sure, in addition to the sounds of country music, they also play with country song tropes like the woman waiting at home in “Working Late”. But, lyrically as well as musically, the song, like Lone Justice’s other songs, embraces country traditions without building upon or responding to or reinterpreting them. The woman waiting at home is, at last, still the familiar woman waiting at home and it’s impossible to discern what the new song has brought to the old trope.
If their interpretation of the trope were, cultural baggage aside, more moving or definitive than the country songs that Lone Justice were drawing from, that successful crystallization of raw emotion would still justify the band’s aesthetic. But, while “Working Late” is a good song, one of their better ones, there is nothing in it to justify their “Clash meets Cash” sound (for instance, the female narrator is not a more liberated, MTV generation girl; if it’s not to signify the narrator’s more modern sense of self, why the rock beat then? Why not a straight-ahead, slower country song that would emphasize the mournful mood?) and no feelings that genuine country stars like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton hadn’t expressed with more power. These aren’t bad songs, but that lunch money would be better spent on the new Maria McKee Millennium Collection compilation instead. It’s only there that she ditches her country affectations and, more importantly, finds something to say.