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Tennessee Truth or Tall Tale: Thunder Road

9:59 AM, Feb 23, 2012   |    comments
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There are some stories here in the South that never fade away, especially those that celebrate a kind of life we can trace back through generations of our own families.

And for some, moonshining is one of those traditions. It's how many families survived during the toughest of economic times.

Back in the 1950s, Actor Robert Mitchum starred in, wrote and produced the film "Thunder Road." He also had a hit song, "The Ballad of Thunder Road."

Both tell the same story of a Kentucky bootlegger, speeding down what proves to be his final run along a stretch of winding road nicknamed "Thunder Road." The cities and towns along the route are real places we all know.

But is the story of the fearless moonshiner true?

It's an iconic song and hit movie some say serves as a soundtrack for the South. Even now, our region recognizes the tune. But for us here at home, the lyrics hold a deeper meaning.

Alex Gabbard is an author and retired Oak Ridge physicist who wrote a book about the Ballad of Thunder Road. He says pieces of truth to the story can still be seen along what's now one of Knoxville's most traveled roads.

"I realized that the place names and geography that Mitchum sang about in the 'Ballad of Thunder Road' are accurate and correct, so that made me wonder if there was an actual historical basis," explained Gabbard.

For his books, Gabbard also interviewed Knoxville native John Fitzgerald who claimed to have witnessed a crash described in the song while standing on his father's farm. But, Fitzgerald passed away some time ago, and without his words, the story seems to be lost in time.

We checked the McClung Historical Collection and found articles on crashes in April of 1954, but none match Mitchum's story.

But even without hard evidence, local history experts say the idea of Thunder Road is very real, and it's something the East Tennessee Historical Society celebrates as part of our heritage.

Moonshining is another part of our cultural heritage.

"Distilling liquor has been part of our economic and social history across the United States," said Lisa Oakley with the East Tennessee Historical Society. "Just like with a lot of other things, it's remained a longer tradition in East Tennessee and the Appalachias."

It's a tradition people are embracing once again.

From the liquor that started it all, to the phrase "Thunder Road" still used today to pay tribute to that time in our history.

So although there's no historical data supporting the Ballad of Thunder Road, those who know the rich story of our region say the tale is still very much a part of our culture.

That means this story is somewhere between a Tennessee truth and a tall tale.

The version of "The Ballad of Thunder Road" many of us are familiar with is different than the movie version, which was actually a slower version.

And contrary to what some believe, the film was actually filmed for the most part in and around Asheville, not here in East Tennessee.

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