The Meaning of the State Song “Rocky Top” by The Osborne Brothers

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Tennesse has 10 official state songs, but we’ve always had a soft spot for “Rocky Top.” 

The song, written by husband and wife songwriting duo Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, was made a state song in 1982. Fifteen years earlier, The Osborne Brothers had released the song as a part of their 1967 album Yesterday, Today, and the Osborne Brothers. It’s a furiously fast bluegrass tune that embodies Appalachian culture so much so that you can almost smell the moonshine as soon as the banjo starts up. 

You’ve likely heard “Rocky Top” at a sporting event or in classic country compilations, but what does the song actually mean?

The Meaning and Location of “Rocky Top”

“Rocky Top” is an ode to the simple life. It’s a song where a city dweller longs for the easy living of the mountainous region in Tennessee where the women are “wild” and there “ain’t no telephone bills.” 

Wish that I was on ol’ Rocky Top
Down in the Tennessee hills.

The Bryants did not give a definitive location for Rocky Top, but many have assumed that the songwriting duo pulled inspiration from the Thunderhead Moutain area in the Great Smoky Mountains. Thunderhead Mountain is located near the city of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where the Bryants actually wrote “Rocky Top” in about ten minutes 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 Bryants’ sons, to The Tennessean. “She said, ‘Boudleaux, let’s do a mountain song, a bluegrass song, anything else.’” 

“Rocky Top” also mentions “corn from a jar” which is another way to talk about moonshine. The verse about moonshine draws a further comparison between the people who live in the country versus the city. 

Once two strangers climbed ol’ Rocky Top
Lookin’ for a moonshine still
Strangers ain’t come down from Rocky Top
Reckon they never will
Corn won’t grow at all on Rocky Top
Dirt’s too rocky by far
That’s why all the folks on Rocky Top
Get their corn from a jar.

The Song’s Legacy and Presence at Football Games

When The Osborne Brothers released “Rocky Top” in 1967, it quickly became their signature song. At first, the song peaked at No. 33 on the U.S. Country charts, and it gained even more popularity after Lynn Anderson released her rendition of the song. 

“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.”

Despite the song’s wide-reaching popularity, the place it’s most beloved is, to no surprise, Tennessee. In particular, the playing of “Rocky Top” at The University of Tennessee sporting events has become a well-practiced tradition. In 1972, the university’s Pride of the Southland Band performed the marching band arrangement of the song for the first time at a football game against the Alabama Crimson Tide. Since then, “Rocky Top” has become the unofficial fight song for the school. (“Down the Field” is the official fight song.)

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

All in all, “Rocky Top” has become synonymous with Tennessean pride. It’s become an anthem for the home-sweet-home mentality so much so that in 2014, the town of Lake City, Tennesse, changed its name to Rocky Top. 

Rocky Top, you’ll always be
Home sweet home to me
Good ol’ Rocky Top
Rocky Top, Tennessee
Rocky Top, Tennessee
Rocky Top, Tennessee.

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