When Maria Mckee Sings, Fans and Critics Know There's (Lone) Justice in This World

updated 09/23/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/23/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Imagine what the good ol' boys, bellied up to the bar at the Palomino Club (the rowdiest country joint in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley), had to say last spring when confronted with the most unlikely form of pop hybrid this side of polka funk fusion. "Cow punk?" those Valley cowboys could almost be heard to say. "Fer shure, pardner. Got horse-blanket pins through their cheeks and their chaps all in shreds, ain't that right?" Close, but not quite. What Lone Justice did have was a smoking brand of giddap country rock fronted by a little lady, one Maria McKee, who had every hell-raiser in earshot eating out of her hands before the night was out.

Dominating center stage in a cotton dress, her curly blond hair hanging over one eye, a hip thrust forward for balance, Maria whaled away at her electric guitar and sang like a girl on fire. Her effect upon the crowded room, where beer levels were high and the air supply low, was explosive. Even the boys at the bar—especially the boys at the bar—loved her, and by the time the night was through they didn't care what you wanted to call the music. Like the lady singer says, "However it sounds, it sounds."

McKee is just 21 and already possesses an "intoxicating artistic vision" that has her poised "on the edge of greatness," according to the Los Angeles Times. Among her fans and supporters she counts Tom Petty, Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics, U2's Bono and the Boss himself. Though they've yet to score a Top 10 hit, the band's debut album received almost unanimous critical acclaim. Super producer Jimmy lovine, who has worked with Stevie Nicks and Bruce Springsteen, says he jumped at the chance to produce Lone Justice after hearing only a rough demo tape. "I loved the voice," he says. "I heard somebody singing with such feeling. When McKee sang, I believed what she was saying."

The band was born in 1980 when guitarist Ryan Hedgecock first heard McKee at a rockabilly concert in the parking lot of an Anaheim drive-in. Knocked out by the teen angel with the bee-stung lips and Raphaelesque eyes, Hedgecock called her up the next day. "A pretty bold move on my part," he says, "but I was desperate to put a band together."

After performing briefly as a country-and-rockabilly duo, Hedgecock, now 24, and McKee signed on bassist and songwriter Marvin Etzioni, 29, and drummer Don Heffington, 34. (They have since added guitarist Tony Gilkyson, 33.) Etzioni, who would eventually contribute three songs to the group's first album, helped produce the demo tape that landed Lone Justice a contract with Geffen Records. And he nurtured McKee's talent by encouraging her to write a cycle of songs that surprise listeners with their striking lyrics, sharp imagery and powerful emotions. "I'm very undisciplined," McKee says of her writing. "I'm a real dreamer. I daydream constantly."

Born in Hollywood to carpenter Jack McKee and his wife, Elizabeth, a painter who sold canvases from behind the family-owned bar, McKee remembers being carried to Whisky A Go-Go as a baby to cheer on her half brother, Bryan MacLean, a guitarist for Love, one of the top psychedelic bands of the '60s. But by the time McKee turned 5, her parents had become strict Baptists and banned rock 'n' roll from the McKee household—until they saw the error of their ways five years later. Maria filled the vacuum in those years by listening to her grandmother's old 78s, and grew up with a "strange imagination about music and eras. I wasn't sure what era I was in."

A Beverly Hills High dropout at 16, McKee brought a wide range of influences—from Little Richard to Janis Joplin to Springsteen—to her surprisingly confident solo club performances in her formative years. "When I was a young kid," she says, "I used to sing with friends and I realized I could carry a tune while half of them couldn't. I just always knew I had it."

McKee and her musical gang expect Lone Justice to fulfill all the critical promise of rock superstardom. As Hedgecock says, "We know where we're at and where we have to go."

John Wayne would have liked that, 'cause a band's gotta do what a band's gotta do. Ride on, pretty Mama.

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