By Dean Stone
of The Daily Times Staff
Tennessee has five state songs and two Bicentennial Songs but none equals the popularity of "Rocky Top," a name frequently given to rocky outcroppings in the mountains. It has also become the fight song for the University of Tennessee Volunteer athletic teams.
Jack Hurst, native Blount Countian who started his writing career on The Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times and is now a nationally syndicated country music columnist for the Chicago Tribune, tells the story best.
Boudleaux (pronounced Booed-low) and Felice (pronounced Fe-leece) Bryant, the first people to make a living writing songs in Nashville, wrote "Rocky Top." The Bryants, she a small Italian-American ex-dancer from Milwaukee and he a tall Georgia-born, onetime violinist, began writing country hits in the late 1940s and broadened the definitions of country music with the Osborne Brothers' "Rocky Top" in 1968.
Boudleaux Bryant and the former Felice Scaduto moved to Nashville in 1949 after their early success. Hurst writes, "Boudleaux first took a $35-a-week job running a song publishing firm. Felice recalls that during the early 1950s they would put their two sons to bed in the evening, write songs all night, get the sons up for school the next morning, and sleep during school hours."
Bryant songs evolve from figures of speech, snatches of melody - anything. One - "Rocky Top" - was even written to break the monotony of writing some other songs, they recalled in an interview by Hurst.
We were on assignment, Boudleaux recalled. Archie "Grandpappy" Campbell, a star of the nationally televised "Hee Haw" show, had asked them to write some songs for an old-folks album he was doing called "The Golden Years." They did but it began to get sort of depressing.
It got so depressing that Felice announced she would write no more "golden years" songs until they wrote something else. Boudleaux balked, wanting to finish their assignment. Felice was adamant and Boudleaux got angry. Well, he said, exasperated, what did she want to write?
"How about a mountain song, a bluegrass thing, something lively and uptempo and happy?" she suggested. Boudleaux started playing his guitar fast. "Well, how about this? he said angrily, and started singing some words:
"Wish that I was on old Rocky Top
Down in the Tennessee hills ... "
Felice started adding lines of her own and they finished in 10 minutes one of the most performed country songs of the last decade - "Rocky Top" is duly marked in the minds of the hotel owners.
The Bryants later made their home in Gatlinburg where they began operation of Rocky Top Village Inn of Airport Road. Boudleaux died about two years ago.
Felice recalls they did not know of a specific place by the name of Rocky Top when they wrote the song but that is a common term given to rocky outcroppings on mountain peaks. Because of the famous last lines of the chorus repeating "Rocky Top, Tennessee" many people look for Rocky Top, Tennessee.
There are three such rocky outcroppings with the official name of Rocky Top in Tennessee. The middle one is on the Tennessee-North Carolina state line on Thunderhead Mountain, partially in Blount County, Tennessee, and in Swain County, North Carolina. The northern most one is in Cocke County, Tennessee, and the southern most one is astride the state line in Monroe County, Tennessee, and Cherokee County, N.C.
Another well known song about the Smokies is "On Top of Old Smoky" which apparently was written about the Smokies but not about a particular peak. Its famous first verse:
"On top of Old Smoky,
All covered with snow,
I lost my true lover,
for courtin' too slow."
Tennessee's other state songs include "My Homeland, Tennessee" adopted in 1925; "When It's Iris Time in Tennessee" adopted in 1935; "Tennessee Waltz" adopted in 1965; "My Tennessee" in 1955, and "Rocky Top" in 1982. Two Bicentennial Songs were adopted in 1975 and 1976.