Editor’s Note: The Seven Bridges Road album release turns 50 this year. To mark that anniversary we are reprinting this article by the late Wayne Greenhaw, recalling the night the song was written. This article first appeared in the Montgomery Independent twenty years ago on April 22, 1999.
By Wayne Greenhaw
Several years ago, when I heard the full mellow sounds of Alan Jackson’s voice singing Seven Bridges Road on the TNN Music City News Awards Show, I remembered a spring Sunday more than 30 years ago when the song was written.
My old college friend Jimmy Evans was driving. Tall, thick, fast-talking when he talked at all, Evans was a young lawyer home from graduate school in New York, a labor law expert now, but still able to quote collegiate poetry through the strings of a guitar. I sat shotgun. I listened as Jimmy talked about the man we were going to see.
“C.P. Austin’s a great guy. He’s been around. He can play the box man. I’m telling you he can play,” he laughed. He knows the blues. He’s been with all the greats, including Robert Johnson. Learned Key to the Highway from the man himself. And Crossroads. Plays Crossroads as close to the man himself as anybody I’ve ever heard.”
In the back seat sat Steve Young, a brown haired native of Newnan, Georgia, who grew up in Gadsden. He strummed his old Gibson that lay like a baby in his lap. His fingers worked the strings easily, getting to know it, feeling it, twisting the tuning knobs between runs. He too knew guitars. He had been to California, written songs, played in famous rock ‘n’ roll bands, and now he was down here in Montgomery, stopping over to earn a little money, relax, fill his creative jug with the right juices, and smell the magnolia. He was working as a 3 o’clock in the morning milk route delivery man for Hall Brothers Dairy and picking and singing on the side.
Heading southeast out of Montgomery on Woodley Road under a thick canopy of wistful Spanish moss, we traveled over several concrete bridges. The back road pavement turned to dirt. We bounced over several more wooden bridges. IN the backseat, Steve mumbled, “ “Ya’ll know this road has seven bridges?” in his guttural Bob Dylan growl. We paid no attention.
At the small community of Orion in rural Pike County, Jimmy pulled into the grassless yard of an unpainted frame house with a front porch. Children poured from the door. Chickens scattered from beneath the house. After each child, the rickety screen door slammed shut. By the time we were out of the car, a slight-built, dark skinned man with big bloodshot rheumy eyes stepped onto the porch. He rubbed the balls of his eyes with the back of his hands, blinked and said, “ How ya’ll?” in a voice that sounded like gravel in a grinder.
Everyone situated themselves on the front porch. C.P. Austin, master of the house, took his customary perch in a straight-backed cane bottom chair. Jimmy sat nearby. Steve took a seat. I sat on the porch floor, back against a post. They held guitars. I fumbled with a camera that I aimed at a child now and then, bringing hands to mouth and giggles of delight.
After Mrs. Austin brought coffee, they tinkered with their instruments that came alive slowly and awkwardly in their hands. “C.P played Mississippi blues way back.” Jimmy said. “Did,” C.P. said, and leaned into the guitar and ran long, knotted, loving fingers over the strings. The slightest frown touched his lips. He adjusted. Ran again. Do do do do! Down, then up to scale. Adjusted. Ran again: Do do do do!
Then with lively fingers he made the box a walking, talking, singing, animated, living thing that took shape and character under those old hands. The tips of his fingers worked. Even his wrists contorted at an odd angle to get just the right sound, which poured forth and filled that little corner of the world.
The children, and even the chickens, hushed. Jimmy and Steve listened with their guitars silent in their laps.
When he finished the old-time tune with a slap of his wide palm against the wood, C.P. said, “I learnt that from a Miss’ippi blues man. I played once upon a time with Blind Lemon Jefferson and drunk whiskey over music with Leadbelly and hung out on the cross-corner from Robert Johnson, the bes’ in the whole land. In a little ol’ Delta town we matched one another stroke for stroke.” He grinned. “I tried.”
They were all old ones, from a slave version of Barbary Allen that his great-great-uncle had taught him when he was a boy in the Alabama Wiregrass, to Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene, sung that same sad way that Leadbelly sang it, leaving the last chord to echo a memory of her poor soul.
As soon as the final sound of one song was over, C.P. grinned again, “ I knowed ‘em all. I seen the good singers down in Atmore at the prison camp, and there was some good ‘uns up in the Tenn’sssee River bottoms, cotton pickers who’d learnt ‘em from their pappys and their pappy’s pappy.” He nodded.
He took a break and we all drank beer and ate fried chicken, and Jimmy played some new old blues on his portable tape recorder. C.P. oohed and aahed as his oversize ears pricked at the sounds.
Between numbers, his hands reached out for the guitar, palming it, looking at it from end to end, examining every inch. Before his second piece of chicken was finished, he had the instrument in his greasy hands again and was playing expertly what he’d just heard for the first time. Halfway through he stopped, Started again. His eyes brightened. “I’ll get it this time he said.
“I played here and there. I don’t stray too far from Orion no more.” He glanced up and caught the stare of his young wife. He grinned, leaned forward, slammed a fan-sized palm against the guitar face and made it ring. His fingers danced across the strings, calluses catching the downbeat, and he sang loudly, full of heart, “I got a gal, she be mine. I got a little gal, sweet as wine.”
When he finished his eyes glistened. “That ‘un’s mine.” His leathery skin shone with the spring sunshine against his sweaty cheek. “ Some blues songs is happy.”
They played until later afternoon and their fingers were numb. We said goodbye. Jimmy drove off and I lowered my head with the sounds still running through my brain, closing my eyes.
As the car bounced over a wooden bride on Woodley Road, I awakened. I hear a new sound, a new rhythm, and Steve’s voice announced, “This road’s got seven bridges.”
They didn’t go home. They came to my apartment in Winter Place high on a hill above Montgomery. It was an old mansion where Scott Fitzgerald had courted Zelda Sayre, and Hank Williams had done a private gig in the basement where slaves had been kept a hundred years earlier. First Steve jotted words on a piece of scrap paper balanced on Jimmy’s rear fender. Inside, Steve kept picking at the song, chording and finding phrases, like, “ I loved you like a baby, like some lonesome child. I have loved you in a tame way, and I have loved you wild,” but it didn’t all fall together that night. He said he still had the sounds of C.P. Austin in his memory, and that memory haunted him all the way north to Montgomery with the moon shining through the moss as we headed home.
The next week, in Peek’s Barbecue on Commerce Street in downtown Montgomery, where Steve started at 10 pm, playing until he took off on his milk route, he told his audience he had written a new song after traveling Woodley Road. “It’s called Seven Bridges Road,” he said, and started. “Now there are stars in the Southern sky, southward as you go. There is moonlight and moss in the trees down the Seven Bridges Road.”
Several years later, Steve Young recorded his song, and in the late ‘60s it became a hit by Joan Baez. In the 70s, The Eagles flew it to the top of the charts. Rita Coolidge recorded it, and so did Iain Matthews.
Steve left his milk route behind, started a California country rock group called Stone Country, cut an album, then went west and made several more, including Rock Salt & Nails, Renegade Picker, Switchblades of Love, and his most recent, Honky Tonk Man. For his 1991 CD recorded live in Houston, Charlie Hunter wrote: “Steve Young is one of the greats. He’s driven, twisted, tortured to find the truth of a relationship, the truth of his heritage as a Southerner or as an American; the truth of the world in which he’s chosen to work, and in which he and we, must live. He’s angry, didactic, filled with wonder. He’s hard, proud and sometimes fighting mean. He’s funny, sad, and passionate. And he believes unerringly in what he does.” Also on the jacket of that work, Townes Van Zandt wrote, “ He is a spiritual hero of mine, and I love him.” Some of his top hits include Montgomery in the Rain, All Her Lovers Want to Be the Hero, Long Way to Hollywood, The White Trash Song, Many Rivers, and many more. Hank Williams Junior made a hit of Montgomery in the Rain, and Waylon Jennings made Lonesome On’ry and Mean his signature tune.
Part Cherokee Indian, Steve Young grew up in Southern Baptist fundamentalism. Mix that with some New Age Zen and you’ve got something to behold. “My songs contain blues, folk, rock, Celtic and gospel feels, Black and Native American elements, and many other influences, “ he says. “My music is not just country, it’s Southern music.”
Little more than a month after our visit, C.P. Austin fell from his porch, hit his head on a rock and died in a Pike County hospital.
Within a year of our Sunday in Orion, Jimmy Evans became a municipal judge, then district attorney, and then attorney general of the state until he was defeated for re-election in 1994. Today he’s a laidback guy who still plays a mean Sunday afternoon guitar.
Alabama author and journalist Wayne Greenhaw passed away May 31, 2011 in Birmingham, Alabama. Musician Steve Young died March 17, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. Jimmy Evans lives in the wilderness of South Montgomery County, where he still practices law, on occasion. When asked about the reprint of this article Jimmy said, “ Wayne and Steve were close friends of mine and and Wayne captured a moment in our lives that was both poignant and beautiful. I remember them with deep respect and affection, and very much regret their passing."
"Seven Bridges Road"
There are stars, In the Southern sky
Southward as you go, There is moonlight
And moss in the trees, Down the Seven Bridges Road
Now I have loved you like a baby
Like some lonesome child
And I have loved you in a tame way
And I have loved you wild
Sometimes there's a part of me
Has to turn from here and go
Running like a child from these warm stars
Down the Seven Bridges Road
There are stars in the Southern sky, And if ever you decide
You should go, There is a taste of time sweetened honey
Down the Seven Bridges Road
The following artists have recorded “Seven Bridges Road”:
1970 – Eddy Arnold on his album Standing Alone.
1970 – Joan Baez on her album One Day at a Time as a duet with Jeffrey Shurtleff.
1970 – Rita Coolidge on her album Rita Coolidge.
1971 – Mother Earth and Tracy Nelson on their album Bring Me Home.
1980 – Eagles Live album
1981 – Neal Hellman on his album Appalachian Dulcimer Duets.
1982 – Josh Graves on his album King of the Dobro.
1982 – Lonzo and Oscar on their album Old and New Songs.
1983 – Atlanta recorded "Seven Bridges Road" in the sessions for their Pictures album; omitted from Pictures, the track served as B-side for the single "Sweet Country Music" (#5 C&W 1984).
1990 – The Carter Family on their album Wildwood Flower.
1996 – FireHouse on their album Good Acoustics.
1998 – Ricochet on their album What a Ride
2001 – Dolly Parton on her album Little Sparrow. Parton was a fan of the Eagles' version, especially liking its harmonies; for her version Parton sang harmony with sisters Becky and Sonya Isaacs.
2002 – Full Frontal Folk on their album "Storming the Castle."
2003 – Jimmy Bowen & Santa Fe on their album A Place So Far Away.
2006 – The Dolly Parton compilation The Acoustic Collection: 1999-2002 features a remix of the Little Sparrow version augmented with vocals by Kasey Chambers, Norah Jones, and Sinéad O'Connor.
2007 – Alan Jackson recorded the song for the album Live at Texas Stadium, with George Strait and Jimmy Buffett.
2007 – Nash Street on their album Carry On.
2015 – Home Free on their album Country Evolution.
2015 – Jubal & Amanda cover the song selection moments on the lives of The Voice (U.S. season 9).
2017 – Delta Rae on their album The Blackbird Sessions.