In the early 1990s, I wound up spending weekdays in Montgomery covering state government. Those were different days for the newspaper business, when a newsroom bustled with a stable of reporters, outlying areas were covered by correspondents, and whenever the state legislature was in session, a reporter was dispatched to Montgomery.
It was unnerving for a long time — I was surrounded by reporters from news outlets around the state who were in Montgomery full-time and had been on the state government beat long enough to know the idiosyncrasies of legislative operation. I’m sure they dreaded to see me coming, because I’d pester them with questions. I appreciate their patience to this day.
It was an interesting time to cover state government because the governor’s seat was held by Guy Hunt, the first Republican governor in Alabama since Reconstruction. He was an outsider — a farmer from Holly Pond who served two terms as probate judge in Cullman County, a Primitive Baptist preacher, and Amway salesman — viewed by the Montgomery crowd as a fluke, an accidental governor.
He came under fire for taking state-owned aircraft to preaching engagements where he was compensated with “love offerings,” but charges in the matter were later dropped. In his second term, he was indicted by a Montgomery County grand jury on charges that he converted campaign funds for personal use. He was taken to trial and convicted and removed from office in April 1993.
The conviction can be attributed to the courtroom prowess of the prosecutor, then-Attorney General Jimmy Evans, a towering figure with a commanding presence. I sat through every day of that trial, and watching Evans build his case was mesmerizing. I was surprised when the jury returned its verdict, but I think Evans was stunned. I don’t think he expected a jury to convict a sitting governor. And I’m sure he didn’t realize he’d just written the first line of his obituary.
I haven’t thought of Evans much in the last couple of decades until a bulletin moved on the wire last week breaking the news of his death. But what came to my mind first wasn’t the Hunt trial, but a tale told by another Montgomerian, Wayne Greenhaw, about three budding musicians trying to find an old bluesman in rural Alabama.
In the early 1960s, Evans shared an apartment in Capitol Heights with a buddy named Steve Young, and one Sunday Evans, Young, and Greenhaw piled into Evans’ car and headed out Woodley Road toward Orion to see a blues musician, C.J. Austin.
Leaving Montgomery, Woodley Road would peter out from two-lane blacktop to a dirt road, and would pass over three sets of double bridges, and then a single bridge a bit father out.
Greenhaw, who would become one of Alabama’s great storytellers, remembered it this way in a 1999 story in the Montgomery Independent:
“…. 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.”
As they drove home toward Montgomery after a day and picking and singing on Austin’s porch, Young piped up from the back seat — “Y’all know this road has seven bridges?”
“That night there was a full moon,” Evans told PrimeMontgomery.com. “We were in my Oldsmobile, and when I stopped, Steve got out on the right-side fender. We sat there a while, and he started writing down words. …”
It would be 1980 before most of us heard his song. It had been recorded by Young, by Rita Coolidge, and by some others, but it was The Eagles who brought Seven Bridges Road to the forefront, with a live album released that year.
Evans was 81 when he died last week, and he outlived everyone else from that rural porch blues jam. A few weeks after the boys’ visit, Austin fell off that porch and hit his head on a rock and died. Greenhaw died 10 years ago after a long career as a writer. Young stayed in the music business until his death five years ago.
As expected, the first line of Jimmy Evans’ obituary identified him as the prosecutor who convicted Guy Hunt on an ethics charge in 1993.
I’d have added that he was the wheelman on a fateful drive beneath a canopy of Spanish moss on a moon-soaked Alabama night along a dirt road with seven bridges — a tableau that begged for posterity in song.
Bill Perkins is editorial page editor of the Dothan Eagle and can be reached at email@example.com or 334-712-7901. Support the work of Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at dothaneagle.com.