Friday, June 21, 2013

30 Day Song Challenge (The Sequel), Day 21: A Song By a Band/Artist That Never Achieved the Level of Fame They Deserved

Finally, FINALLY, today I've been given a prompt that makes for an incredibly easy pick.  I'm sure there are a million artists or bands that have never achieved the level of fame they deserved-- many of whom I know personally and who grind it out every night as hardworking musicians here in Memphis-- but when I read today's prompt, one band in particular immediately came to mind.

I'm talking about Lone Justice, an American alt-country band formed by guitarist Ryan Hedgecock and fronted by the inimitable singer Maria McKee.  Lone Justice was one of the original creators of the cowpunk sound, which combined country, punk, folk and blues music and had an all-too-brief, but very influential, life in the 80's.  For reasons that absolutely stymie understanding and offend cosmic justice, Lone Justice's albums never sold enough bring them fame, even despite the fact that their self-titled debut has been included on many lists of the greatest albums ever made.  (It is, by the way, one of the greatest albums ever made.)  I sometimes wonder whether or not Lone Justice was just a bit too ahead of its time.  A decade later, when the alt-country and roots-rock scene really exploded with the likes of Uncle Tupelo and all of its offspring (Son Volt, Wilco, Whiskeytown, Drive-By Truckers, etc.), no one really paid tribute to or even recognized Lone Justice as a trailblazer for their success.  What a damn shame.

Lone Justice was like a perfect omelet, which anyone who's ever tried to make one knows is incredibly hard to produce.  I mean, anyone can make an omelet, of course.  But a perfect one?  That requires the very best ingredients in the exactly right combination prepared by a masterfully-skilled chef.  Lone Justice had all of these going for it and, what is more, it had one of the best (and most underrated) female vocalists of all time to top it off.  No kidding, I would trade at least two, maybe even three, limbs for Maria McKee's voice.  Her's the perfect combination of strong, vulnerable, knowing and true.  It's the kind of voice that speaks through and for you, that haunts you, that you dream of at night, that is immediately and unmistakably identifiable, and that hurts all the way down to the very marrow of your bones.

And their songwriting was impeccable.  True to the musical roots from which they drew, Lone Justice's songs were simple, straightforward, almost elemental.  They were real, live human dramas in sonic form.  This is one of their best, "Don't Toss Us Away," in one of the rare live performances that you can find on YouTube:

I've said it countless times on this blog before, but I'll say it again: all you'll ever need for a great song is three chords and a sad story.  "Don't Toss Us Away" is the very best proof of that.

There are precious few songs, ever, that have captured so purely and so truly the core sentiment of heartbreak like the lyrics to this song's chorus: I still love you / I want you to stay / So darling, please, don't toss us away.  In the long history of sad songs, there are plenty of "don't leave me" ones, plenty of "come back to me" ones, and even more "I love you even though you don't love me" ones.  But there's something about this one.  McKee's not just asking her love to stay, or not to leave, or to come back.  She's not just asking that her love be reciprocated.  She's asking that a far greater transgression not be committed, that a grave and unforgivable insult not be added to an already devastating injury.  She's asking that the love not be tossed away, as if were.... well, as if it were what we (and she) already knows it is. 


And as if that weren't heartbreaking enough, as if the rapier-like edge of the song hadn't been driven deep enough, McKee delivers the coup de grace: that tragically sweet falsetto followed, like a storm follows the thunder and lightning, by the classic-country musical walk-down at the end.  A coup de grace is supposed to be the blow that ends the suffering.  But it doesn't here. Here, it only magnifies and intensifies and extends the suffering.  And, by doing so, it ultimately kills again.

It's more than a bit masochistic to love songs like this as much as I do.  But, oh, how I love them so.

Nostalgic? Check out my entry on Day 21 of the 2011 version of the 30 Day Song Challenge.

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