Lone Justice’s The Vaught Tapes, 1983 captures the seminal alt-country band — a pioneering force in the Los Angeles country-rock scene during the mid-1980s — in top form.
CMT Edge spoke with bassist-songwriter Marvin Etzioni about compiling material for the new collection, a superb showcase for singer Maria McKee’s volcanic vocals and guitarist Ryan Hedgecock’s rockabilly roots. The recordings were captured directly on two-track tape in a studio owned by David Vaught, a friend of the band. This is the first time the recordings have been released in their entirety.
“I held onto the tapes for 30 years but never had the sequence right,” Etzioni says. “The day George Jones died, I thought, ‘Wait a minute. We have that record with the George Jones track [“Nothing Can Stop My Loving You”].’ The whole sequence came together like dominoes falling.”
CMT Edge: Explain how these songs initially came together.
Etzioni: Well, the band evolved very quickly in the public eye, and this was the real peak. Once we got [Don] Heffington locked in on drums, I thought this was an unstoppable little band musically. I really believed what was going to separate Lone Justice from everybody else and make it have any long-lasting impact was having original songs as opposed to being an homage to a particular country artist or point of view.
Describe your songwriting process.
The three of us [Etzioni, McKee and Hedgecock] would get together and work up the songs acoustically. Then the harmonies we’d worked out acoustically, we’d apply electrically. My goal was to do everything live. It wasn’t doctored up. I made sure it said “no overdubs” on that tape. That was true.
Tell the story behind writing “Cactus Rose” with Maria.
We were in San Francisco on the first tour. We were opening for Rank and File. I think we had a day off, and I was watching a film called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. There was a close-up of a cactus, and I called up Maria and said, “I have an idea for a song, and I want to call it ‘Cactus Rose.’” She said, “It’s a good title.”
We got back to L.A. and she had some good lyric ideas for verses. My whole thing was, “I love this, but we’ve gotta have a strong chorus.” That’s always been my thing — strong title, strong chorus. So I got together with Maria at her apartment — she was living with her mom at the time — and we finished the song.
It was a breakthrough song at the time because up until that one, Maria’s focus was really that she wanted this thing to be country. “Cactus Rose” was the Trojan horse song in a way because it was a natural evolution toward more rock. I turned her on to the Velvet Underground and the early Stones singles and early Bowie and the Stooges and Spiders.
Describe Maria’s best asset as a songwriter.
I think it’s her originality with titles like “Dustbowl Depression Time.” When I first heard “Soap, Soup and Salvation,” I went, “Wow.” Again, for that one, I went to her apartment where she lived with her mom and slept on the couch. I made sure we had this song finished. As far as the strength and originality of concept, I never met any songwriter like her.
Which songwriters most impacted you?
We certainly had influences of Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard. I think those songwriters come from that point of view — the song titles are really strong, the concepts are strong, yet at the same time, you’re grounded at the strength of the choruses that Parton or Haggard wrote.
What drew you to “Jackson”?
Maria and Ryan were coming from the June Carter and Johnny Cash version, and I grew up on the Nancy Sinatra version produced by Lee Hazlewood. So, when they said they wanted to do “Jackson,” I thought they meant that version. I love the Nancy Sinatra version and think it’s one of her best singles. I think, in a way, that’s what made the band work. We were looking at the same piece of the sky but coming from different places.
Speaking of which, describe the cowpunk scene in L.A. in 1983.
There were a handful of artists who I would say were onto this. Rank and File had a record out on Warner Bros. They were one step ahead of the gang who were just playing the clubs. Blood on the Saddle had an indie record, but I would call them song-centric, where many of the bands in the cowpunk world were style-centric. I’m more interested in song than style.
It just happens that we were under this moniker for a moment. People didn’t really know what to call it. We just played. It was very pure. There was a sense of purity and innocence. Word spread naturally. None of us know anyone in the press. This was really built from the ground up. By the time Heffington came in, we had a following. Things were moving pretty quickly by the time we did The Vaught Tapes.
The term “Americana” didn’t exist as a description then, but it’s grown so much now.
Oh, definitely. When I was talking to Lucinda [Williams] years ago, she said, “When we started, there was no Americana. There was no alt-country, no No Depression.” I said, “Yeah, there was just depression.” (laughs) There was nothing really going on, except if you did this, you had to be either out of your mind or you had to love it — or both. I would say probably both. Why else would you do it?