Both of Vince Gill’s recent sets with the Eagles kicked off with “Seven Bridges Road.” The stunning five-part harmonies of the Eagles’ live version turned a fairly obscure county song into a classic rock staple. As a student of country music history, Gill was surely paying homage to more than Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey. He was also positioned to honor Steve Young, a lesser-known yet extremely influential songwriter who passed away in early 2016.
A child of eastern Alabama, Young found lyrical inspiration for “Seven Bridges Road” in a rural stretch of road just outside of Montgomery. Young’s sparse, acoustic version first appeared on his 1969 solo debut Rock Salt and Nails. It’s an amazing and underrated album, featuring guest appearances by Byrds alums Gene Clark and Gram Parsons. An even more emotionally-draining version was cut in Nashville for 1972 album Seven Bridges Road. That album introduced two Young compositions that shaped outlaw country, “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean” and “Montgomery in the Rain.”
Joan Baez also recorded a version of the song in 1969. Her arrangement sounds more traditionally country than the original. Baez had a great track record with country covers during this time period, including one of the greatest versions of early hillbilly gospel song “A Tramp on the Street.”
Former Fairport Convention member Ian Matthews completely revamped the song’s arrangement in 1972, alongside producer, background singer and ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith. Matthews and Nesmith’s multi-part harmonies and sparser arrangement sound very similar to the Eagles’ live treatment of the song. While Young wrote the lyrics heard on 1980’s Eagles Live album, Matthews and Nesmith could easily get credit as arrangers.
Separating Young’s legacy from the Eagles’ version of “Seven Bridges Road” became impossible over the years. Later covers by the Carter Family and Dolly Parton owe more to the Eagles’ harmony-driven version of the original. That’s more of a tribute to the Eagles’ grasp of roots sounds than a slight at Young. Conversely, most reports on Young’s March 16, 2016 passing rightly identify the song as his timeless contribution to country and rock’s often-visited crossroads.