40 Years Ago: Eagles’ ‘Seven Bridges Road’ Ends a Winding Path in Top 40
"Seven Bridges Road" served as a warm-up song before becoming Eagles' final classic-era Top 40 hit. Prior to that, it was a tucked-away cover on a Mike Nesmith-produced album by British folk rocker Iain Matthews.
But the late singer-songwriter Steve Young's best-known track actually began life along a lonesome highway outside Montgomery, Ala.
He was traveling one night with friends Jimmy Evans and Wayne Greenhaw when they stopped to marvel at the moss-covered scene under a full moon. "Steve got out on the right-side fender," Evans, who later served as Alabama's attorney general, said in My Heart Is in the Earth: True Stories of Alabama and Mexico. "We sat there a while, and he started writing down words."
Surrounded by such beauty, Young said the initial lines came rushing out. Moments like this soon inspired him to give up a 3AM delivery route for Hall Brothers Dairy and focus on music full time.
"As you went out into the countryside, the road became this dirt road and you crossed seven bridges, and then it was almost like an old Disney scene or something, with these high-bank dirt roads and trees hanging down, old cemeteries and so on," Young told Jeff Moehlis in 2010. "It was very beautiful, you know? And on a moonlit night it was exceedingly beautiful."
Listen to Iain Matthews' Version of 'Seven Bridges Road'
Young placed an early version of "Seven Bridges Road" on his 1969 debut, Rock Salt and Nails, a pioneering but overlooked country-rock record that featured Gene Clark, Gram Parsons and James Burton. Joan Baez and Rita Coolidge covered the tune in the early '70s, and Young re-recorded it for albums in 1972 and 1977, but "Seven Bridges Road" nevertheless seemed fated to remain something of a local novelty.
Young said he wasn't surprised. "I wound up writing this song that I never dreamed anybody would even relate to or understand or get," he added, "and I still don't understand why it was so successful, actually."
He'd need a trick of fate involving an up-and-coming country-rock act, a guy from Fairport Convention and a legendary Los Angeles haunt.
Half a country away, the Troubadour had begun attracting figures like the Eagles and Matthews, whose 1973 album Valley Hi featured a reworked version of Young's now-seemingly forgotten track. "We were forever going back to somebody's house and playing music," Matthews said in the liner notes to The Soul of Many Places: The Elektra Years, 1972-1974. "Don Henley had a copy of Valley Hi that he liked, so I've no doubt about that being where their version of the song came from."
Both covers share the same tempo and, perhaps most noticeably, a gorgeous new harmony vocal that Nesmith originally created with Matthews during multi-track sessions at the former Monkees star's Countryside Ranch studio. Their work wasn't credited, but Nesmith took some solace in learning that his approach was a source of inspiration.
"Son of a gun if Don or somebody in the Eagles didn't lift [our] arrangement absolutely note-for-note for vocal harmony," Nesmith later said. "If they can't think it up themselves [and] they've got to steal it from somebody else, better they should steal it from me, I guess."
Listen to Eagles' Version of 'Seven Bridges Road'
"Seven Bridges Road" wasn't initially meant to be a single so much as a warm-up exercise during a tour behind 1974's On the Border, former Eagles guitarist Don Felder said. They leveraged the Valley Hi vocal approach to get loose before shows, typically in the locker-room shower area since the acoustics were better. Young's song then made its way into their set, kicking off Eagles concerts with a moment of stirring beauty.
"When we went out onto the stage, the lights would come up and we'd be standing there at a single microphone to open the show with that same melodic, lilting song," Felder said in Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles. "It blew people away. It was always a vocally unifying moment, all five voices coming together in harmony. I'd get goose bumps every night."
"Seven Bridges Road" was later replaced as their concert opener by the title track from 1976's Hotel California, but then returned for shows in support of 1979's The Long Run. The take included on 1980's subsequent Eagles Live concert souvenir was recorded on July 28, 1980, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, just two days before the band imploded.
Eagles Live arrived that November, followed by the "Seven Bridges Road" single on Dec. 15, 1980, almost a decade after it was initially released on Young's debut album. The wider world finally got a chance to enter this pastoral lovelorn landscape, as the no-longer-lost "Seven Bridges reached No. 21 on the Hot 100.
"Consciously when I wrote it, it was just a song about a girl and a road in south Alabama," Young told the Gadsden Times in 1981. "Now, I think there's almost a mystical thing about it."
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