NASHVILLE — It’s football time across America and soon every inch of Neyland Stadium in Knoxville will be filled with the sounds of the University of Tennessee’s Pride of the Southland Band leading 100,000 fans in Rocky Top.
It was written 50 years ago as a diversion, recorded as a “throw-in song” and became an anthem for an entire state.
Rocky Top was penned by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, the husband and wife duo behind classics like Bye Bye, Love and Love Hurts, while holed up in Room 388 of the Gatlinburg Inn.
“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,” said Del Bryant, one of the couple’s two sons. “She said, ‘Boudleaux, let’s do a mountain song, a bluegrass song, anything else.'”
Rocky Top was written in about 10 minutes.
Not long after, bluegrass brother act the Osborne Brothers were going into the studio. “Back in those days, you tried to get four songs within three hours,” said Bobby Osborne. “We had three and we were looking for one more song.”
Sonny Osborne called on his friend and neighbor Boudleaux Bryant and came back with Rocky Top.
“It was a throw-in song,” said Sonny Osborne. “We were really looking for a ballad because they stayed on the charts longer.”
During their sessions at Owen Bradley’s studio in Mount Juliet, the Osborne Brothers recorded a ballad called My Favorite Memory. When the record came out on Christmas Day, 1967, My Favorite Memory was the A-side and Rocky Top was the B-side, said Sonny Osborne.
UT band director: 'I’ve seen it turn games around'
In early 1968, the Osbornes visited disc jockey Ralph Emery’s show on WSM and brought their new 45 with them.
“I played (My Favorite Memory) and said, ‘Let’s turn it over and try the other side,'" Emery remembered. “When the banjo came on and the harmonies came on, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a great record.'"
Emery continued to play Rocky Top on his show and other DJs followed his lead. It peaked at No. 33 on the country charts, and quickly became a staple of the Osborne Brothers’ live performances. “At one time we would open the show with it and then play it again at the end,” said Sonny Osborne. “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."
Other artists began recording it, including Porter Wagoner, Bill Anderson, Dinah Shore and Lynn Anderson, who had a hit with it in 1970.
The University of Tennessee’s Pride of the Southland Band first played the song during halftime of a 1972 game against Alabama. The crowd liked it so much that the band started playing it during games. It’s the school’s unofficial fight song, pumping up players and fans alike.
“I’ve seen it turn games around,” said Donald Ryder, Director of Bands at UT. “That song will make Neyland Stadium really rock.”
It’s a band tradition, Ryder added, for a senior trombone player to keep track of how often the marching band plays Rocky Top each season. In 2016, they played it 438 times. And yet, “It’s never gotten old for me. I still get goosebumps.”
Rocky Top is the rare song that becomes more popular with each passing year. Children in the Volunteer State learn it alongside their ABCs and it gets played at weddings and funerals. In 1982, Tennessee adopted it as one of its state songs, and three years ago, the small town of Lake City changed its name to Rocky Top in an attempt to increase tourism.
‘Like a dream’
Sonny Osborne retired in 2005 after shoulder surgery affected his ability to play the banjo, but fans still reach out about Rocky Top. Just last month, a woman in California sent him a handmade sign decorated with the lyrics "Rocky Top ... home sweet home to me."
At 85, Bobby Osborne is still making music. He put out a stellar new album, Original, earlier this year, and still performs live. One song is always on his set list. “If I’m at the Opry and I have two songs (to play), one of them will be Rocky Top. And if I just do one song in the segment, that one will be Rocky Top."
He's sung it thousands of times, at bluegrass festivals, symphony halls and the 50-yard line at Neyland Stadium, but he still gets emotional when thinking about the song's impact: “It’s the greatest feeling there ever was … I never dreamed in my whole lifetime that I’d ever be a part of something like that. Still, it’s kind of like a dream that happened and I was a part of it.”
Boudleaux and Felice Bryant died in 1987 and 2003, respectively, having lived to see their 10-minute song become an integral part of Tennessee culture.
“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,” said Del Bryant. “Who would ever think that would become an anthem, and a phenomenon? My folks certainly didn’t."
Follow Juli Thanki on Twitter: @JuliThanki