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Jeff Moehlis: Steve Young to Wander into Santa Barbara

Sings Like Hell performance will be with old friends Van Dyke Parks and David Jackson

In 1980, The Eagles released a stunning live version of the song, “Seven Bridges Road,” which received a fair amount of airplay on the radio and became a Top 40 hit. Like many people, this was my introduction to the music of Steve Young, who had written the song over a decade before.

Digging a little deeper, one discovers that Young wrote many other wonderful songs, including some that were also covered by heavy-hitters, such as “Lonesome, On’ry And Mean,” which became a trademark song for Waylon Jennings, and “Montgomery in the Rain,” which was covered by Hank Williams Jr.

On Jan. 23, Young will be joined by the legendary Van Dyke Parks and bassist David Jackson for a Sings Like Hell performance at the Lobero Theatre. Expect to hear both solo and group performances by these old friends.

I recently had the pleasure of talking to Young. A partial transcript of our conversation follows.

Jeff Moehlis: Early in your career you traveled around a lot.

Steve Young: I am by nature a traveler, a wanderer. My first trip out of the South was to Greenwich Village, to New York City — which was quite a shock actually, at that time. Later I came to Los Angeles, in 1963. Coming to California was really a big deal to me. It still is, kind of. And that’s where I am now at the moment. I’m hanging out here in L.A. again.

I never was a typical Southerner, so it was kind of difficult for me in the South, particularly in the early 1960s. So, it was good for me to discover some other parts of the country or the world.

JM: How did you meet Van Dyke Parks and David Jackson?

SY: I met Van Dyke in 1963. I think we met at a coffee house down at Hermosa Beach, or somewhere like that. We’ve been friends ever since.

I don’t remember exactly when I first met David, but I know we worked together some on my first (solo) record (Rock Salt & Nails) on A&M (Records). We began recording that in 1968 in L.A. I know he played some on that recording.

So these are old, old friends, you know? I look back very fondly on that time. That record I did at A&M is still the favorite record of mine that I’ve ever done.

JM: That album is somewhat notable because people like Gram Parsons made appearances on it.

SY: (The Flying Burrito Brothers) were finishing up their album, The Gilded Palace of Sin, as I came in. This was done at the old A&M Studios at La Brea and Sunset, what once had been a Charlie Chaplin movie studio. Gram played a little bit on it. He lent a lot of moral support to me, really, about what I was doing. He liked it. Then some other guys from that country rock scene that was forming then played on it, too. Some of what were or were going to be The Byrds were on that recording, did little parts on that record.

Steve Young's
Steve Young’s “Seven Bridges Road” paints a vivid picture of a legendary locals-only route through rural Alabama. ( photo)

JM: Probably your most famous song is “Seven Bridges Road” ...

SY: Yeah, there’s no doubt. That song is famous. I mean, I’m not, but the song is.

JM: What’s the story behind that song?

SY: It surprises some people. There was a road that led out into the countryside outside of Montgomery, Ala. And I lived in Montgomery for a while in the early 1960s. I formed a few close friends there who very different than the mainstream of Montgomery. They used to tell me about this road that they called Seven Bridges Road. I thought they had made up the name, because 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 dirt roads and trees hanging down, old cemeteries, and so on. It was very beautiful, you know? And on a moonlit night it was exceedingly beautiful.

I found out later that the road had been called that for a long, long time. A lot of people over the years had been struck by the beauty of the road, and the folk name for it was Seven Bridges Road.

I wound up writing this song that I never dreamed anybody would even relate to, or understand or get. And I still don’t understand why it was so successful, actually. But, anyway, it was.

JM: Another of your well-known songs is “Lonesome, On’ry And Mean.” What’s the story behind it? 

SY: Waylon Jennings gave some fame to that and used that image, which is a funny image, you know? That became a big trademark of his, and it helped him to cross over into something a bit broader than country music, which he certainly did not completely fit into.

JM: Do you have any favorite cover versions of your songs?

SY: I do love Waylon’s version of “Lonesome, On’ry And Mean.” I mean, I’m always interested in other people’s versions of songs, regardless of whether they’re good or bad. I’m interested in hearing what they do. I’m always interested in interpretation, somebody who interprets something and gives it a unique touch.

I certainly think The Eagles’ version of “Seven Bridges” is good. It’s different than the way I’d do it. Iain Matthews’ version is excellent. There are people like Joan Baez, Rita Coolidge, they all did good versions of the song.

JM: You also do covers of other people’s songs. How do you choose which songs you want to cover?

SY: It has to be a song that I feel I can really live, that I can really feel and make mine, so to speak. And it may take me a long time to digest that song, and really get it where I want it to be. You know, I keep fooling with it. It can be a long process.

I’m proud of my interpretations. I think they stand up very well, and I think they are unique.

JM: Do you want to set the record straight on anything? For example, Hank Williams Jr. claimed that “Seven Bridges Road” was about the road to Hank Williams’ grave.

SY: Well, now this is not true but it’s not totally false, and I can explain this. Seven Bridges Road went out into the countryside, away from Montgomery. Now, Hank Williams’ grave is over in the middle of Montgomery in an old cemetery. But, here’s the factor that lends a little bit of truth to that: Sometimes when we would go out Seven Bridges Road, we would come back into town and the last thing we would do would be to go by Hank Williams’ grave. So, in that sense, there’s a little truth to it. But the song was not specifically about going to Hank Williams’ grave. No, that is not true.

JM: But then there’s your song “Montgomery in the Rain.”

SY: Yeah, that does refer to going to Hank Williams’ grave. In those days, you could go to his grave at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, which we often did. We would drink, or whatever. Respectfully. We didn’t throw junk or trash around. But we did it in fact in the spirit of songwriting and music, as sort of a ... I don’t know what you would call it. A mystical thing.

JM: Where are headed next after L.A.?

SY: I’m going to go to Oklahoma to see my granddaughter. Then my son, Jubal Lee Young — who, by the way, has some good writing and recording going on — and I are going to do a gig in Oklahoma City, and we’re going to do one in Baton Rouge. Then I’m going back to Nashville, back
to my home base, so to speak. I’m also going to hang out some more in Texas, probably. I don’t know if I’ll do any gigs there this time. I did on my way out. I kind of like to work my way across.

JM: So you’re still a wanderer, it sounds like.

SY: I’m a wanderer. I always will be, as long as I’m physically able.

Steve Young with Van Dyke Parks and David Jackson will perform as part of the Sings Like Hell series at 8 p.m. Jan. 23 at the Lobero Theatre, 33. E. Canon Perdido. Click here to purchase tickets online.

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB.

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