Classic Americana Albums: Maria McKee “Maria McKee”

Geffen, 1989.

artwork for Maria McKee album "Maria McKee"

artwork for Maria McKee album "Maria McKee"By the time her eponymous debut solo album was released during the summer of 1989 Maria McKee was still only 24 years old, and yet for close on a decade she had become the voice and the face, of the new cowpunk music scene. Along with her band Lone Justice she was seen by the press and music business in general as the next ‘big thing’, the act everyone wanted to be associated with, established names as well as the new wannabes. In fact such was the excitement and clamour that at times it got pretty damn hard to hear the music above the hype, with such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Steve Van Zandt all falling over each other to offer up songs for the band. It therefore came as no surprise that they eventually collapsed under the weight of such expectation after just two studio albums. The irony in all this was, that in McKee, younger half-sister by 18 years of Bryan Maclean, guitarist of seminal sixties band Love, they already had a writer of the highest order having, whilst still only 19 years old, written ‘A Good Heart’ ,which would become a smash hit for Feargal Starkey while on the band’s sophomore album her song ‘Wheels’, would surpass anything supplied by her more illustrious suitors.

The album ‘Maria McKee’, was produced by Mitchell Froom with an elite list of session musicians and collaborators drawn from many varying musical backgrounds who significantly helped to keep the album grounded to its roots against its rather over stylised arrangement, thus ensuring that even today over thirty years after its release it manages to avoid sounding as dated as so many of the heavily produced albums of the period. Among those responsible were Alex Aluna on percussion, Jim Keltner and Jerry Marotta on drums, Shane Fontayne, Marc Robot and Richard Thompson on guitar, Tony Levin and Jerry Scheff on bass and Steve Wickham on fiddle.

Right from the opening track ‘I’ve Forgotten What It Was In You (That Put The Need In Me)’, McKee hits the listener with both barrels, a heavily strummed acoustic guitar against a strong back beat supporting a voice so full of passion and hurt, emotions laid bare for all to hear, as if one had inadvertently walked in on a relationship in its final throes. It was immediately understood that this album was not going to be filed under easy listening but rather one that was going to pummel your heart way past the point of submission. So it is that the following two tracks continue on the emotional rollercoaster ‘To Miss Someone’, and ‘Am I The Only One’, the latter later covered by the Dixie Chicks on their grammy nominated album ‘Wide Open Spaces’. Next up was ‘Nobody’s Child’, a cowrite with Robbie Robertson for whom she appeared in the video for his hit single ‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River’, two years earlier.

Prior to recording the album McKee had spent her time reading the plays of Tennessee Williams and studying the history of vaudeville of which the influence of both can be heard throughout, in particular on the Magnus opus ‘Panic Beach’. Here the sublime lyrical narrative creates a wonderful cinematic snapshot of the seedy and somewhat depressing world of backstreet theatres. Her perfectly rounded characters, full of regret and bitterness jostle for one last turn in the spotlight, as McKee singing in the first person is torn between escaping, leaving it all behind, or one last shot at making it real.  It is storytelling at its very best. During this period Mckee was being managed by Jimmy Iovine, a relationship that by the time of this recording was becoming strained, and probably inspired the following number ‘Can’t Pull The Wool Down (Over The Little Lamb’s Eyes)’ on which one can sense the frustration within McKee simmering just beneath the surface. ‘More Than A Heart Can Hold’, a cowrite with Bruce Brody, complete with a gospel choir and horn section is pure soul music magic whilst the following number ‘This Property Is Condemned’, a cowrite with Brody along with the recently deceased Greg Sutton treats us to another graphic narrative tale of falling on hard times with some stinging guitar accompaniment that adds just enough of a brutal edge. Sutton helped out on the next track, ‘Breathe’, where Thompson’s guitar playing dances around McKee’s vocals, and for almost the first time on the album she offers a little restraint and reflection, almost to a whisper and yet still oozing power, whist Wickham’s fiddle playing helps to create a sense of serenity and peace. Thompson is responsible for what was the final track of the vinyl release of the album, and the only cover version, with ‘Has He Got A Friend For Me’, that had originally appeared on ‘I Want To See The Bright Light To Night’, which Thompson recorded with his then wife Linda back in 1974. Once again McKee makes the song her own, here now achingly understated with just a solitary piano for support that subtly exposes all the heartache wrapped within the lyrics of this desperately lonely plight. The Cd version offers up one additional track at the end with the rollicking ‘Drinkin’ In My Sunday Best’, that harks back to her days with Lone Justice, full of country swagger and punk persuasion.

Was it one last look back from where she came? Well in light of what came next possibly not, as McKee’s following album, 1993’s ‘You Gotta Sin To Be Saved’, leaned heavily on its country roots, though history will suggest this was not the musical direction of her choice but rather one taken under duress. In between she had global success with the hit single ‘Show Me Heaven’, from the soundtrack to the film ‘Days Of Thunder’, a song she hated so much she refused to include it in her live set for many years. McKee’s future releases would see a shift in musical direction, with a postmodernist, indie rock sound that lay closer to her artistic compass, but in truth nothing has ever truly matched either the strength of material nor the quality of performance that was delivered on her debut solo offering, of which the NME would place at No. 9 on its ‘1989 Album Of The Year’ list. Truly an Americana Classic.

About Graeme Tait 125 Articles
Hi. I'm Graeme, a child of the sixties, eldest of three, born into a Forces family. Keen guitar player since my teens, (amateur level only), I have a wide, eclectic taste in music and an album collection that exceeds 5.000. Currently reside in the beautiful city of Lincoln.
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Graeme Milligan

Indeed, an absolutely essential album; and something she was never able to replicate or surpass.

Jeff Jones

One of my top ten albums and in retrospect perhaps my first alt.-country listen.

Paul Dickson

A great album, we went to see her live at the Bluecoat rooms in Liverpool

Nick Hay

Many thanks for this. Panic Beach is a huge favourite of mine and the information about Tennessee Williams makes perfect sense (if we had Americana dramatists he would be my number one!). I think her musical career has been fascinating. Every album is at the least interesting with a constant desire to experiment and never repeat herself – probably not characteristics which make for popularity or accessibility. Late December is a particular highlight for me.