The 50-year rise of Rocky Top

The Pride of the Southland Marching Band spells Rocky Top during a halftime performance at Neyland Stadium.
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Most great songs climb the charts, peak and eventually descend into the valley of cherished classics.  Yet, the popularity of "Rocky Top" has continuously soared in the 50 years since it was written in August 1967.  The song struck a rare chord that still resonates with music fans and was adopted as a sports anthem for fans of the University of Tennessee.

BURNOUT BEGINNINGS

For husband and wife Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, writing "Rocky Top" was merely a brief and refreshing distraction in August 1967.  The songwriting team was hunkered down in room 388 of the Gatlinburg Inn working on a large country music project when Felice was feeling burned out.

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"They checked in and were working on a project called 'The Golden Years' for Archie Campbell," said Greg Bailey, general manager of the Gatlinburg Inn.  "Felice was getting tired of working on so many slow songs and wanted a break. She wanted to do something different.  Boudleaux wanted to keep working on the main project."

In interviews with WBIR in the 1980s and 1990s, Felice Bryant described the brief bickering before Boudleaux finally appeased her with the short diversion that resulted in "Rocky Top."

"I said I want to write something 'up.' Something with a beat. Something about the mountains.  How about a bluegrass [song]? Anything. I started coming up with words, he came up with words, he finished the tune and we had the song," said Felice Bryant in 1991.  "He asked what did I think we should call it and I said I didn't know.  He said, 'How about Rocky Top?'"

Many have assumed the inspiration for the song's title came from a peak in the Tennessee portion of the Great Smoky Mountains known as Rocky Top.  The site is a sub-peak of Thunderhead Mountain and overlooks Cades Cove.  Although the songwriters were in a hotel next to the national park when they wrote the song, their son says the couple knew nothing about an actual location named Rocky Top.

"They had no idea there was a place called Rocky Top when they wrote the song," said Del Bryant.  "It's sort of like 'Muddy Bottom,' which was another single done by the Osborne Brothers.  There's no real place I know of called Muddy Bottom, but if you search the records you can probably find one.  To them, Rocky Top was just a place they imagined in the mountains where corn would not grow and you could get moonshine."

RELATED STORY: 50 years of Rocky Top fun for songwriters' family

The Bryants wrote "Rocky Top" in around 10 minutes, set it aside and went back to working on their main project of slow-tempo songs for Archie Campbell.  A few months later, the Bryants sent "Rocky Top" to The Osborne Brothers for the bluegrass group's upcoming record.

FROM OSBORNES TO VOLUNTEERS

The song "Rocky Top" was originally recorded by the Osborne Brothers and released on Christmas Day of 1967.  The rip-roaring bluegrass tune climbed as high as number 33 on the Billboard Country charts.  

The song broke the top 20 in 1970 when it was recorded by country music star Lynn Anderson.  A slew of other performers recorded "Rocky Top," including Conway Twitty, Buck Owens, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.

While the original "Rocky Top" recordings conjure up thoughts of banjos, the song did not become a cultural icon until it was played with flutes and trombones.  The University of Tennessee's Pride of the Southland Marching Band performed "Rocky Top" as part of a medley of country music tunes at halftime of a home game at Neyland Stadium in 1972.

"There was an arranger for the band by the name of Barry McDonald who was very familiar with country music because he had also been an arranger for the Johnny Cash Show," said Dr. Don Ryder, director of bands for the University of Tennessee.  "It hit a spark with the crowd during halftime event and the band realized it.  Then they started playing it in the stands. It was like a snowball growing into an avalanche.  It was something the fans grabbed ahold of and here we are celebrating 50 years of a song that became deep-rooted in the University of Tennessee."

"Rocky Top" became the unofficial fight song for fans of the Volunteers.  Despite its unofficial status, ESPN and other outlets have named Rocky Top the best fight song in college football.

Ryder said the song is deserving of the top spot due to the emotion it brings out of everyone in nearly all stadiums.

"Our freshmen in the band cannot wait for their first chance to actually play Rocky Top," he said. "It's exciting for the band.  If you add up the amount of times the song is played at all our sporting events and during practice, a graduating senior probably plays the song more than 5,000 times.  It doesn't matter how many times you play it, the song is a crowd-mover.  It always gets the fans going.  It is the most loved song by Tennessee fans and the most hated song when you go to other stadiums.  The other fans boo when we play it, that gets us fired up to play it even louder, then our fans feed off it, and it's always a song full of emotion."

In 1982, the song echoed through the halls of the state capitol.  The Osborne Brothers performed the song live on the floor of the legislature when the tune was approved as one of Tennessee's official state songs.

In an interview with WBIR in 1982, both Boudleaux and Felice Bryant expressed great joy and surprise at the ongoing success of the song.

"Every time something new and wonderful happens to it, it is a source of amazement to me because I really didn't think much of it at the time we did it," said Boudleaux.

ROCKY TOP LOVE AND LEGACY

Five decades after the song was written, hardly any modern bluegrass musician can take the stage without someone in the crowd requesting "Rocky Top."

"We were playing at a festival recently and someone asked us to play Rocky Top," said Alex Leach, banjo player for the Clinch Mountain Boys and longtime host of the WDVX radio station's Bluegrass Special program.  "Bobby Osborne, the man who sang and played on the original recording of 'Rocky Top,' was coming up later at the same festival.  We said it's best to let the man who actually did the song play it, because nobody can play it like Bobby Osborne and The Rocky Top Express.  Bobby is in his mid-80s and still does an awesome job singing and playing the mandolin.  But that just shows how popular the song is. Even with Bobby Osborne coming up, somebody will ask the band before them to play 'Rocky Top.'  It's just a classic song that everyone around the country knows. When they think of bluegrass, they think of Rocky Top."

The room where the song was recorded has become an attraction at the historic Gatlinburg Inn.  The hotel placed a small plaque on the wall of the room noting the song was written there in 1967.  The room also features a large print of the sheet music for the song, photos of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, and maintained much of the same décor.

"Other than new carpet, we've tried to preserve it.  We have the same furniture that was in the suite when the Bryants wrote the song.  We kept the original lighting.  It is something people are interested in because it's such a big part of music history," said Bailey.

The rate for the room where "Rocky Top" was written runs between $169 to $219 per night, depending on the time of year and the day of the week.   The suite is slightly larger than the other rooms at the historic inn and has two double beds. 

Countless businesses have latched onto the Rocky Top name as part of their identities.  In 2014, the community of Lake City, located around 25 miles north of Knoxville, changed its name to Rocky Top in an effort to attract new businesses.  The name change resulted in lawsuits and eventual settlements.

The song "Rocky Top" hardly made the careers of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant.  The prolific duo wrote thousands of songs, had more than 800 recorded and sold more than half a billion copies worldwide. Their hits include songs such as "Love Hurts," "Bye Bye Love," "Wake Up Little Suzie" and "Raining In My Heart."

While other songs were more profitable during the Bryants' careers than "Rocky Top," it is unlikely any tune in their catalog is more likely to be widely-played 50 years from now.

"It is just engrained in people in Tennessee to love this song.  You see little kids barely old enough to walk and talk and they can sing the song.  They even know when to yell, 'Woo!'  There's just so much passion and tradition with 'Rocky Top.'  As long as there's a state of Tennessee, that passion for 'Rocky Top' will live on forever," said Ryder.

"The song is a juggernaut and it keeps getting more popular over time," said Del Bryant.  "It is something my parents were really proud of and we're all still proud of today."

Boudleaux Bryant died in 1987 and Felice Bryant died in 2003.  Del Bryant and his brother, Dane Bryant, own House of Bryant Publishing.  House of Bryant owns the rights to the song "Rocky Top" and the rest of the Boudleaux and Felice Bryant catalog. 

Dane Bryant forged a successful real estate career in the Nashville area.  Del Bryant retired as CEO of BMI in 2014 after more than 40 years of growing the company into a giant in the world of handling music rights and royalties.

ROCKY TOP 50TH BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION

The Historic Gatlinburg Inn is hosting a free concert on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017, to celebrate 50 years since Rocky Top was written in room 388.  Musical guests will be Jimbo Whaley and Greenbrier, Kenny and Amanda Smith, and Confederate Railroad.  A commemorative ceremony will begin at 5 p.m. with entertainment to follow on the "Rocky Top" stage at the front of the inn.  The inn is located at 755 Parkway in the heart of downtown Gatlinburg.  Food and beverage vendors will be selling concessions.  Free water and Pepsi products will be available while supplies last.