The lyrics to the song Rocky Top were undoubtedly embedded into every Volunteer fan’s memory at a very young age. If you aren’t a fan of the Tennessee Volunteers and happen to spend a lot of time in Tennessee, there stands a strong chance you have heard this familiar tune because it’s also a state song! Millions know the song, but not many know the history behind it. It is the 45th anniversary of the song that was written in Gatlinburg so what better time to tell the history of this legendary piece.
Where is Rocky Top?
There are three places in East Tennessee that have a claim to being the “Rocky Top” – Thunderhead Mountain, ridges in Cocke County and Monroe County.
Standing tall in the Great Smoky Mountains outside of Gatlinburg is Thunderhead Mountain at 5,528 feet. The mountain is split in half by the Appalachian Trail and is home to one of the only 360 degree views in the park. You will find Rhododendron, Laurel thickets, Dogwoods and tall flowing grass upon this 70-acre expanse. The human eye can only see as far as 7 miles, but when you are standing upon this mountaintop, it feels as if the sight before you never ends. As your gaze comes back and the awe subsides, you may notice a humbly placed, bronze plate a few paces away that reads ‘Rocky Top.’ This could easily be a “6th Secret Place to Discover”, that is if you are willing to grind out the grueling 14.2 miles round trip to experience it! This location is without a doubt the more famous of its two counterparts.
In 1967, Archie “Grandpappy” Campbell from the televised show “Hee-Haw” contracted the Nashville, TN famous couple Felice and Boudleaux Bryant to write songs for an old-folks album called “The Golden Years”. The couple began writing fiercely to get the assignment finished. The slow tempo of the songs they had been writing became too depressing for good ole Felice. She demanded that they stop and write something more upbeat. Adamant that they do this, Felice tried to convince Boudleaux, and he angrily responded:
"Wish that I was on old Rocky Top Down in the Tennessee hills ... "
Felice responded in kind by adding in more lines. In 10 minutes, the couple co-wrote a song that would transcend generations and define a region. It was only fitting that Felice and Boudleaux co-wrote their hit in Gatlinburg, TN at the Gatlinburg Inn, because Gatlinburg is at the heart of those “Tennessee hills”. After writing the song, the couple continued on with their assignment not knowing the impact it would later have.
A “Fight Song” for all that is Orange
While Rocky Top was written in 1967, the song did not gain popularity until the Pride of the Southland Band at the University of Tennessee used it in a football half-time drill in 1972. As the story goes, the crowd could not get enough of it. The more the band played Rocky Top, the more the crowd wanted it. The popularity of the song grew wildly from there, and it eventually became the official rallying cry for the University of Tennessee football team. Just a short 10 years later, “Rocky Top” became one of the 5 state songs for Tennessee! Are you in love with Rocky Top yet? Maybe this will help, just click, listen and feel the rich history behind all that is Rocky Top!