They did their best stuff before they ever had an album out. Prior to the age of artists uploading their first bedroom demos to YouTube, this kind of blather was typically unverifiable, the refrain of poseur purists who just may have been drunk when they caught that promising opening set or basement show. But with certain bands, there’s always been a ring of truth to these claims, and, in this age of labels dedicated to saving every last tape from the vault, we can judge for ourselves. Lone Justice, the L.A. country rock outfit that went from impressing local crowds to opening for U2 on an arena tour to effectively dissolving before their second album was even recorded, may not have done their best stuff before they released their Geffen debut in 1985, but, as this archival release proves, people who caught on later found a much changed band.
This Is Lone Justice: The Vaught Tapes, 1983 is the first official full-length document of the band’s early years, which saw it tearing through country standards and twangy originals with affable energy. The George Jones-inspired members of Lone Justice weren’t exactly the outliers you’d have expected in the L.A. punk community. By the time guitarist Ryan Hedgecock and singing force of nature Maria McKee got together in 1982, that scene’s scope had already expanded beyond hardcore and post-punk into blues rock, rockabilly, folk, and other realms of Americana courtesy of the Blasters, X, the Gun Club, and others. In their day, Lone Justice shared the goofy genre label “cowpunk” with similarly country-besotted rock bands like Rank and File, Jason and the Scorchers, and the Long Ryders. This Is Lone Justice makes a case for the early Lone Justice as the quintessential example. This is country through a punk filter; unlike their contemporaries, Lone Justice weren’t based in roots rock or rockabilly, but in two-step country and gospel played unusually fast and rowdy.
This might have been a recipe for endearing sloppines (think a proto-Uncle Tupelo) had it not been for Lone Justice’s fidelity to their influences, down to technically expert playing. If anything, This Is Lone Justice is a testament to the band’s live chops. Recorded to two-track with no overdubs, the songs that comprise this release are the result of just two days’ worth of recording with late engineer David Vaught, and they serve as the wild, spontaneous antidote to the band’s fussed-over official debut. There’s no missing that Lone Justice could play. Hedgecock, in particular, comes off better here than on the self-titled album, laying down intricate country-rock licks that producer Jimmy Iovine would largely bury under additional guitars and layers of organ (from Heartbreaker-on-loan Benmont Tench).
Of course, this release, like any other Lone Justice release, is still inescapably the Maria McKee show. McKee is one of rock’s most puzzling should-have-beens, an astoundingly powerful vocalist who can shift from a drawl to a broad showtune delivery to a Van Morrison motormouth on a dime, but just never caught on with a big audience in any lasting way, one solo UK hit single from the Top Gun soundtrack aside. By the mid-90s, she’d found her way to striking Bowie-inspired art rock on Life is Sweet, an album so awesomely bizarre and uncommercial (and just waiting for some enterprising archival release label to put it back in print, hint hint) that it must have been the final straw for Geffen, the label that had signed Lone Justice, retooled their sound for maximum pop potential, fired everyone but McKee before the second album, and watched dumbfounded as her first couple solo efforts went mostly unheard.
But before all of this, McKee was an 18-year-old with a giant voice and a charismatic presence that intuitively plays to the crowd even when the crowd was just Vaught and her bandmates. It’s no coincidence that Dolly Parton (who contributes an endorsement to the liner notes) was an early fan; in addition to a vocal similarity, neither can mask that personal effervescence — a joy in performing — no matter how sad the song.
Unfortunately, it’s in the songs that This Is Lone Justice gets tripped up. It’s split pretty evenly between covers and originals, and, not surprisingly, developing songwriters McKee, Hedgecock, and bassist Marvin Etzioni can’t quite keep up with their idols. Merle Haggard’s “Working Man’s Blues” gets a fantastic workout and a fine instrumental lead-in, but the band’s too eager to put some ostensibly artful distance between itself and its own forays into blue-collar woe. No one involved thought that songs called “Dustbowl Depression Time” and “The Grapes of Wrath” may have been taking their Steinbeck fixation a little too far? (Clearly not, since “East of Eden” would later kick off the Geffen debut.)
It’s because of this songwriting deficit that I’d have to disagree with the early adopters on this one. Lone Justice may have been a better performing unit before Geffen forced that ’80s drum sound and Benmont Tench’s ubiquitous keys on them, but there’s something to be said for having Tom Petty and Little Steven contributing material when you haven’t quite gotten a handle on songwriting. This Is Lone Justice is often charming and absolutely a find for Lone Justice diehards, but there’s a reason why only one of the originals here (“Soap, Soup, and Salvation”) made the cut for the proper debut. Interested parties should start there or with 1998’s This World Is Not My Home, a comp that includes a few cuts from the Vaught sessions, along with some other early recordings, plus the best songs from the official studio albums.