Bards Bluegrass Fiddle Tunebook Supplement/Rocky Top
"Rocky Top" is an American country and bluegrass song written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant in 1967 and first recorded by the Osborne Brothers later that same year. The song, which is a city-dweller's lamentation over the loss of a simpler and freer existence in the hills of Tennessee, is one of Tennessee's eight official state songs and has been recorded by dozens of artists from multiple musical genres worldwide since its publication. In U.S. college athletics, "Rocky Top" is associated with the Tennessee Volunteers of the University of Tennessee, whose Pride of the Southland Band has played a marching band version of the song at the school's sporting events since the early 1970s.
The Osborne Brothers' 1967 bluegrass version of the song reached number thirty-three on the U.S. Country charts, and country singer Lynn Anderson's 1970 version peaked at number seventeen. In 2005, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ranked "Rocky Top" number seven on its list of 100 Songs of the South.
"Rocky Top" was written by married songwriting duo Boudleaux Bryant (1920–1987) and Felice Bryant (1925–2003) in 1967. At the time, the Bryants were working at the Gatlinburg Inn in Gatlinburg, Tennessee on a collection of slow-tempo songs for a project for Archie Campbell and Chet Atkins. Writing the fast-paced "Rocky Top," which took about 10 minutes to write, served as a temporary diversion for them.
While the song became a staple of the Osborne Brothers concerts in the late 1960s, the song did not achieve mass popularity until the early 1970s, when Lynn Anderson's version reached number seventeen on the Billboard Country Top 100. In 1972, the University of Tennessee's Pride of the Southland Band first played the song as part of one of its drills, the idea and arrangement being primarily the work of band arranger Barry MacDonald. The song was officially adopted as the fifth Tennessee state song in 1982. In the 1970s, the song achieved such popularity among bar crowds that the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, old-time band the Red Clay Ramblers' national tours included a crowd-pleasing satire informally titled "Play 'Rocky Top' (or I'll Punch Your Lights Out.)" The Bryants' children currently own the rights to the song under the corporate name "House of Bryant," and the song's original sheet music is on display at the Rocky Top Village Inn in downtown Gatlinburg.
Despite its fast and upbeat tempo, the song is actually a lament over the loss of a way of life. In the song's opening verse, the singer longs for a place called "Rocky Top," where there is no "smoggy smoke" and there are no "telephone bills." The singer reminisces about a love affair he once had on Rocky Top with a woman "wild as a mink." The song's second verse recalls a story about two "strangers" (apparently revenue agents) climbing Rocky Top "looking for a moonshine still," but never returning (conflict between moonshiners and "revenuers" is a common theme in Appalachian culture). In the third and final verse (which consists of just four lines), the singer again longs for the "simple" life, likening life in the city to being "trapped like a duck in a pen."
College fight song
With its good-natured regional references to a carefree lifestyle, the singing of "Rocky Top" by Tennessee college students and alumni at sports venues such as Neyland Stadium is well established. The University of Tennessee has been granted a perpetual license to play the song as much and as often as success on the field dictates by the copyright holders, House of Bryant. "Rocky Top" was first played by the UT band at Tennessee's October 21, 1972, game against the University of Alabama. Contrary to popular belief, "Rocky Top" is not UT's official fight song, although it is so closely identified with the university that many believe this to be the case. UT's official fight song is a radically different tune called "Down the Field."
Location of Rocky Top
While the Bryants never indicated that "Rocky Top, Tennessee" refers to a specific place, some have suggested that a 5,440-foot (1,660 m) barren summit known as "Rocky Top"— located in the Great Smoky Mountains along the Tennessee-North Carolina border— is the best fit, due in large part to its proximity to Gatlinburg, where the song was written. Rocky Top is a subpeak of Thunderhead Mountain, which overlooks Cades Cove, and is traversed by the Appalachian Trail. Rocky Top appears on maps of the western Smokies as early as 1934, and has been a popular hiking destination since the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created during the same period.
The name "Rocky Top" is sometimes used as a nickname for East Tennessee, the city of Knoxville, and the University of Tennessee (especially its two major athletic venues, Neyland Stadium and the Thompson-Boling Arena). "Rocky Top" is also a popular name for East Tennessee businesses, among them a real estate agency and a chain of convenience stores.
Operation Rocky Top
"Operation Rocky Top" was the FBI's code name for a public corruption investigation into the Tennessee state government in the late 1980s which resulted in the eventual suicide of the Tennessee Secretary of State, Gentry Crowell, and the incarceration of several other individuals, most notably state House Majority Leader Tommy Burnett. The focus of the investigation was the illegal sale of bingo licenses.
Phish played "Rocky Top" regularly from 1987 to 2003 and, after reforming, again in 2009. There have been additional cover versions of the song by artists such as The Schwag, Dillard and Clark and country artists such as Dolly Parton, John Denver, Albert Lee, Conway Twitty, and Billie Jo Spears. Columbus, Ohio-based all-female rock trio Scrawl included a cover of the song on their Nashville-recorded 1988 album "He's Drunk". Many contemporary groups and artists have performed the song while performing in Knoxville, including Rascal Flatts, Brad Paisley, and Keith Urban. The country rock group the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band tackled the song on their 1976 compilation album Dirt, Silver and Gold. Rascal Flatts LIVE
- Bill Williams, Our Stories: Rocky Top. WBIR.com, 19 November 2008. Retrieved: 20 September 2009.
- Bryan Perry (producer), Shane Harrison, Sonia Murray, Nick Marino, and Soyia Ellison, 100 Songs of the South. Retrieved: 2009-09-20.
- Clay Carey, "'Rocky Top' Clip Puts Network A&E in Court. The Tennessean, 26 August 2009. Retrieved: 20 September 2009.
- Beth Haynes, "Rocky Top Penned at Gatlinburg Inn." WBIR.com, 4 September 2009. Retrieved: 2009-09-20.
- For discussion of moonshining in Southern Appalachia, see Horace Kephart's Our Southern Highlanders (1922) and Joseph Dabney's Mountain Spirits (1974).
- Tom Mattingly, The University of Tennessee Trivia Book (Hill Street Press, 2007) ISBN 1588181383
- University of Tennessee — Songs of Tennessee. Retrieved: 2009-09-20.
- Robert Silvers, "Hit Song Born at Gatlinburg Inn." Saturday Evening Post, 26 June 2009. Retrieved: 2009-09-20.
- Peakbagger.com, Rocky Top, North Carolina/Tennessee. Retrieved: 2009-09-20.
- United States Geological Survey, "Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina," 1934. Retrieved: 2009-09-20.
- Laura Thornborough, Great Smoky Mountains (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1942), p. 143.