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Rocky Top


March 18, 2022

"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 ten 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 (UT), 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 No. 33 on the U.S. Country charts, and Lynn Anderson's 1970 version peaked at No. 17 on the U.S. Country charts and No. 33 in Canada. 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 Campbelland 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, UT'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 deemed popular enough to be played at a halftime country music show by guest saxophone soloist Boots Randolph at a game in Knoxville against Alabama on October 21, 1972, gaining fans' attention. Randolph reprised his jazzy "Rocky Top" solo when Tennessee played LSU on New Year's Eve, 1972 in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl at the Houston Astrodome. UT recognized the song's appeal and the band started playing Rocky Top at every game. Long-term band director W.J. Julian stated that if Rocky Top was ever not played, then there would be a mutiny among Vol fans, reflecting the song's deep-rooted foundation in UT sports.

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-based 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."


Despite its fast and upbeat tempo, the song laments 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" and "sweet as soda pop." 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). The song says that the soil on Rocky Top is too rocky to grow corn, so the people of Rocky Top "get their corn from a jar". 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 Soing

"Rocky Top" is a favorite of UT fans, alumni, and others who sing it while the Vols play at Neyland Stadium and Thompson–Boling Arena. The House of Bryant in Gatlinburg, their publishing company, has granted the University of Tennessee a perpetual license to play the song as much and as often as success on the field dictates. Pride of the Southland Band assistant director and arranger Barry McDonald created a marching band arrangement that was first played at the Vols' October 21, 1972, game against the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Over the years, "Rocky Top" has become so closely associated with UT that many people believe it to be the school's fight song. However, UT's official fight song is "Down the Field". Regardless of its lack of official status, in 2015, "Rocky Top" was designated the #1 fight song in college football, based on a "cumulative data-based ranking of America's most engaged fan bases" by USA Today. One Tennessee tradition related to the song and similar to that of other schools is to have the team's quarterback conduct the marching band in performing the song after a big win, with Peyton Manning popularizing the tradition when he was Tennessee quarterback.

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 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 rocky outcropping at the peak is about 25 yards (23 m) long.

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.

In 2014, Rocky Top became a true geographic place name after Lake City, Tennessee changed its name to Rocky Top after an effort by the House of Bryant to enjoin the city was denied by a federal court.

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.

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