The Story Behind The University Of Tennessee’s Unofficial Fight Song, ‘Rocky Top’

The song “Rocky Top” has been a staple among Tennessee residents for decades. It is especially honored by the University…

By

Madeleine O’Connell

| Posted on

September 1, 2023

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Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, TN. Photo By Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics, Courtesy of Facebook

The song “Rocky Top” has been a staple among Tennessee residents for decades. It is especially honored by the University of Tennessee Volunteers who claimed the tune as their unofficial fight song in the early 1970s after it was first performed by the marching band at a football game against Alabama Crimson Tide. 

Since then, the song has remained a vital part of the football season and with fall right around the corner, fans and players are gearing up to welcome this song back into Neyland Stadium in hopes that it will motivate the Vols to bring their team to victory. 

Tennessee Volunteers

Neyland Stadium; Photo Courtesy Vol_Football, Instagram
Neyland Stadium; Photo Courtesy Vol_Football, Instagram

“I’ve seen it turn games around,” said Donald Ryder, Director of Bands at UT. “That song will make Neyland Stadium really rock.”   

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Story Behind The Song

Seeing as how “Rocky Top” has become such an iconic tune, it may come as a surprise to some to learn that it actually came about accidentally. The story goes, back in 1967, the husband-and-wife songwriting duo, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, were staying at the Gatlinburg Inn inside room 388 while penning an album for Archie Campbell, star of the show Hee Haw. 

The couple’s son, Del Bryant, previously explained to several news outlets that at the time, his parents only had two songs left to complete the album when Felice Bryant started to argue that they needed to write a more upbeat track. 

“They were writing an album for Archie Campbell called The Golden Years and Mom felt as though she were aging dramatically with every old age song they wrote,” Bryant told The Tennessean. “She said, ‘Boudleaux, let’s do a mountain song, a bluegrass song, anything else.’”

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During an interview with the Knoxville, TN news station, WVLT, Bryant expanded on his story as he shared, “My father got a little bit upset with her. So, he grabbed his guitar and started singing, ‘Wish that I was on old Rocky Top down in the Tennessee hills,’ there what do you think?’ She said, ‘I like it. Let’s write it,’ and then about 15 minutes later, it was written.”

Osborne Brothers

This spurt of creativity led to what would become one of the official Tennessee state songs after it was elected by the general assembly in 1982. Fifteen years prior, the tune saw great success when the Osborne Brothers released it as a part of their 1967 album, Yesterday, Today, and the Osborne Brothers.

“At one time we would open the show with it and then play it again at the end,” said Sonny Osborne, as reported by The Tennessean. “It was phenomenal, that song. We went to Japan, Sweden, Germany—you’d go anywhere and they’d know ‘Rocky Top.’ It put our name out in front. And it stayed there a long time.”

The incredibly fast bluegrass tune quickly became a hit and reached number 33 on the U.S. Country charts. It gained even more popularity when Lynn Anderson released her own rendition of the song in 1969, which climbed the charts to spot 17. This marked the highest charting version of “Rocky Top.”

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While The Bryants did not give an exact location for “Rocky Top,” many believe that the inspiration was pulled from the Thunderhead Mountain area in the Great Smoky Mountains. Thunderhead Mountain sits near the city of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where the song was written.  

The lyrics pay homage to the simple lifestyle of the Tennessee mountain region where the women are “Wild as a mink, but sweet as soda pop” and there “Ain’t no smoggy smoke” or “telephone bills” like there is where the city folks’ dwell. Instead, the region of “Rocky Top” provides a place of tranquility that many consider to be “Home sweet home.”

Lyrics

The famed chorus goes, “Rocky Top, you’ll always be / Home sweet home to me / Good ol’ Rocky Top / Rocky Top, Tennessee / Rocky Top, Tennessee.”

“It’s a song for all occasions if you’re a fan of Tennessee, a fan of UT, a fan of bluegrass or a fan of what the song stands for: a more simplistic life,” Del Bryant explained. “Who would ever think that would become an anthem, and a phenomenon? My folks certainly didn’t.” 

Considering the inspiration for the tune was accidental, its impact on the state of Tennessee has been monumental as it’s evolved into an anthem that encapsulates so much pride for the state. 

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Madeleine O’Connell graduated from North Central College with a bachelors degree in Journalism and Broadcast Communications before deciding to pursue her studies further at DePaul University. There, she earned her masters degree in Digital Communication & Media Arts. O’Connell served as a freelance writer for over two years while also interning with the Academy of Country Music, SiriusXM and Circle Media and assisting with Amazon Music’s Country Heat Weekly podcast. In addition to Country Now, she has been published in American Songwriter, Music Mayhem, and Holler.Country. Madeleine O’Connell is a member of the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music.