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Tennessee Traditions: 50 Years of Rocky Top

The famous Volunteer anthem was written 50 years ago this month.

The Pride of the Southland Marching Band.
The Johnson City Press

Throughout the smoking hills and deep hollars of East Tennessee, it’s hard to find a people more proud of their culture than those of Southern Appalachia. It is one of the reasons Tennessee fans are the most passionate in not only the SEC, but in college football. If you happen to find yourself at Neyland Stadium (or anywhere the Vols are playing) on a Saturday afternoon in the fall, you’ll hear the fans showing their pride through song.

Rocky Top, one of the most recognizable tunes in sports, was born in room 388 of the historic Gatlinburg Inn in 1967. It was there in room 388 where married songwriters Boudleaux and Felice Bryant were writing up songs for singer Archie Campbell in August of that year. Despite the fact that the Bryant’s were known for writing slow songs, they decided to try their hand at something up-tempo. With a guitar in hand, they wrote Rocky Top in just ten minutes.

The song began to gain popularity when the Osborne Brothers started playing it in the late 1960s. In 1971, singer Lynn Anderson’s rendition of Rocky Top climbed to number 17 on the Billboard Country Music top 100. However, it was in 1972 that the song became a staple for the University of Tennessee.

In 1972, Pride of the Southland band arranger Barry MacDonald started playing the song in band drills. Realizing the popularity of Rocky Top among the band members, MacDonald included the song in the halftime show of the Alabama game in 1972 at Neyland Stadium. It was on that Saturday that a tradition began. The fans in attendance enjoyed the song so much that Pride of the Southland band director W.J. Julian said if Rocky Top was not played at a game again, there would be a “mutiny among Vol fans.”

Today it may be hard to imagine that a simple song written in only ten minutes in a hotel room in Gatlinburg, Tennessee would go on to gain so much acclaim among the Tennessee fan base and Tennesseans everywhere. USA Today ranked Rocky Top the #1 fight song in college football and the Atlanta Journal Constitution ranked the song #7 in their “Top 100 Songs about the South.” In 1982, Rocky Top became the 5th official state song of Tennessee.

If you are in Neyland Stadium this season, cheering on the Vols and you hear the Pride of the Southland strike up that familiar tune, take time to think of those that made it what it is today. It is more than just song. It is a representation of the great state of Tennessee and her people.