In 1987, The Band’s Robbie Robertson released his first solo album. On that wonderful collection of songs, he included a narrative about a steamy night in Arkansas called “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.” Even though it was written and performed by Robertson, anyone who’s ever seen the Martin Scorsese-directed video understands that the song belongs to Maria McKee.
“They closed the set, gave me a glass of wine … and it was like our first date,” McKee remembered recently. “We had a crush on each other, but it was very chaste and never went very far. It was a fun time. He was very inspiring to me and taught me a work ethic … I didn’t have any … I was a spoiled kid and got everything too easy.”
However, there’s a school of thought that says opportunity finds talent. That said, opportunity could not have avoided McKee if it had tried. McKee, an accomplished singer/songwriter firmly based in the punk and rockabilly traditions established by X and The Blasters, was also a founding member of the original cowpunk darlings Lone Justice.
Born to creatives, her father (a noted architect) and her mother (an artist and a dancer) exposed her to the arts from an early age.
“Oh my god – if it wasn’t for my family, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now,” McKee said. “I grew up going to shows at The Whiskey … starting from the time I was probably born up until I was around three. My parents would bring me. I was a babe in arms, and they would bring me.”
However, it is McKee’s brother who probably had the greatest influence on her. He was none other than Bryan MacLean, guitarist, songwriter and driving force behind the seminal LA rock band Love. And when she talks about Bryan, who died unexpectedly on Christmas Day 1998, you understand their bond.
“I grew up in a really loving, but very complicated family,” McKee said. “It’s no secret; my brother was troubled. I was his caretaker starting from when I was 13. I was like this little grown up. He was my best friend and my hero and my everything. He was Bryan. He was a force of nature.”
McKee and MacLean played together in a short-lived duo before she branched out on her own.
“I grew up in my teens going to punk rock shows,” McKee recalled. “But then, that sort of splintered off into this sort of roots rock, post-rockabilly scene, and a lot bands came out of that. There was Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs – amazing rock and sort of post-punk blues band fronted by this incredible dude. Top Jimmy was just riveting, and I worshipped him. I used to go to his gigs, and one night I wrote him a note that I was performing with my brother’s band. He took me under his wing and had me start performing with him. I became this mascot … a 16-year-old with a really big voice.”
Soon thereafter, McKee decided she needed her own group.
“I wanted to put a sort of a Patsy Cline rockabilly band together,” she said. “My friends would go and hang out at this carhop in Anaheim called Angelo’s … sometimes they’d have rockabilly nights, and bands would get up and play. I sang with one of them and Ryan Hedgecock (Lone Justice guitarist) was there, and he called me the next day and said, ‘Look, let’s put a band together.’
“I had this friend Victoria Williams, and I really wanted her to be in the band. It started out with just me and Ryan and Victoria, and then she decided that she wanted to do her own thing, and obviously she went on to be the great Victoria Williams,” she said.
McKee recalled the start of Lone Justice as well.
“Ryan and I started out listening to Jimmie Rodgers records and Hank Williams and the Blue Sky Boys … all this old hillbilly music … Bill Monroe … a lot of George Jones and a lot of Gram Parsons and a little CCR. Our first gigs, we were a cover band … Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, Louvin Brothers … really old school hillbilly country … we could barely play our instruments. There was definitely a punk rock edge to it.
“We started giggin’ around and it was insane – we got so much attention right away … from the press and the music industry … it was dizzying. We were signed in six months. We were very lucky.”
Fame came early, and it wasn’t always a walk in the park. When most teenagers are spreading their wings and looking to chart their own course, McKee and her bandmates were feeling the pressures of life on a major label.
“When people are looking to you and have all these expectations of what you’re going to do for them as far as your talent is concerned, you treat it in a way that is another kind of distortion of reality, where you are indulged and allowed to behave like a child. I had a very complex personality disorder starting from a young age. It was very difficult for me …. very, very, very difficult for me.”
McKee has since transformed and has navigated a very successful solo career. Today, she is so much more than the “16-year-old with the really big voice” and very much a Renaissance woman.
She continues to perform, touring in fits and starts, and has broadened her artistic palette.
“I’ve gotten very into writing … and not necessarily songs … I write plays and short stories. I also teach a songwriting course for this school called Arvon, which is a really prestigious poetry school in England. My husband and I are making films now, and all our energies are kind of going towards that. We’re certainly going to be recording my voice for the soundtrack. But, right now, I feel so disassociated with the prospect of making albums and trying to put them out.”
However, McKee was lured back to her beginnings and recently recorded with roots rock favorites Hail The Size, singing back-up on three tracks and playing piano on seven.
“I love being a session musician,” she said of her involvement with the recently released I Can’t Die in LA.
“I love Matt (North) – he’s a really talented producer and musician. If I didn’t think so highly of Charles (Ezell), I wouldn’t have lent my talent. I think he’s the real deal. My husband and I would go to their shows, and it was historical – completely transcendent. Like – Oh my god, this guy is like Andy Kaufman meets Tom Waits meets John Prine, and the band is so cool, and he and Matt’s repartee was just far out.”
What was that I said earlier about opportunity and talent? Perhaps, it is actually talent that opens the door to opportunity. Regardless, McKee continues to have both in spades.
*Arthur Lee’s, Love’s founder and multi-instrumentalist nickname for Maria