Whether you first heard the song around a campfire at summer camp, in a bluegrass circle during your high school years, or being sung a cappella by six orphaned miscreants in the back of Brewster Baker’s (aka Kenny Rogers’) Winnebago in the movie Six Pack, the song “Rocky Top, TN” probably hit you in some special way. The iconic bluegrass song written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, and first released as a single on Christmas Day, 1967 by the Obsorne Brothers has gone on to become one of the most well-recognized bluegrass songs in history. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution once ranked “Rocky Top” number seven on its list of “100 Songs of the South” and the Tennessee General Assembly has voted in the song as an official State Song despite it never being a big hit, and despite there not actually being a Rocky Top, Tennessee …. until now.
“Rocky Top, TN” was written by the Bryant writing duo (best known for writing many of the Everly Brothers’ hits) when they were looking for a change of pace after writing a bunch of slow songs. It took the duo only ten minutes to write “Rocky Top”, and though the specific location of the Bryant’s Rocky Top is thought to reference the barren 5,440-foot “Rocky Top” summit in the Great Smoky Mountains near the Tennessee / North Carolina border, not far from Gatlinburg where the song was written, there’s no people or community there like there is in the song.
However one enterprising town in East Tennessee called Lake City just a little north of Knoxville saw where the lack of a true Rocky Top, Tennessee could be an opportunity. Looking to boost tourism to the town of around 2,000, Lake City’s city council voted on November 7th, 2013 to petition the Tennessee State Assembly and have the town’s name officially changed to Rocky Top. The idea was partially inspired by a business partnership that suggested if the town changed its name, they would build a theme park there.
It sounded like a good idea to the city council, but the path from Lake City to Rocky Top would be rocky by far. The House of Bryant, which owns the copyright to the “Rocky Top, TN” song and multiple trademarks associated with the name put up a fight, and said the town’s name change violated intellectual property laws. On May 29th, 2014, The House of Bryant sought a preliminary injunction to bar the town from changing its name, but a district judge denied the request. On June 26th, Lake City legally changed it’s name to Rocky Top, and for the first time, Rocky Top, Tennessee became an actual place.
One of the great things about the song “Rocky Top, TN” is that even though it may have never been about a real place, it speaks deeply about our sense of home and comfort, and remorse about a changing world. Only fitting that “Rocky Top” now officially has a home of its own.