I’ve been a resident of East Tennessee for all of six months now. In this short time, two important things have happened: I’ve fallen in love with Pigeon Forge and the Smoky Mountains, and I’ve learned every single word to “Rocky Top.”
This infectious little ditty tells the story of a big city dweller who yearns for simpler times and the easy way of life high in the Tennessee hills. It’s been recorded dozens of times, first by the Osborne Brothers in 1967 (see the video below), and by country music all-stars like Dolly Parton, John Denver, Albert Lee, Buck Owens, Conway Twitty, Billie Jo Spears and more. Modern country musicians like Rascal Flatts, Brad Paisley and Keith Urban have played the song in concerts held in Knoxville and Pigeon Forge, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band included it on a greatest hits album. It’s a song that speaks to many, and holds a very special place in the hearts of Tennessee residents and visitors alike.
Just how important is this simple tune to folks here? In a word, VERY.
Here’s an example of Rocky Top’s reach: A few weeks ago, I joined some friends and their guests visiting from Los Angeles for dinner at a favorite barbecue spot (Rickard Ridge BBQ at Cove Lake State Park — located about 60 miles northwest of Pigeon Forge off I-75 and TOTALLY worth the drive, by the way). The house band plays bluegrass music a few nights a week, and of course, in true East Tennessee style, “Rocky Top” is always on the set list. Of course, in true East Tennessee style, the folks packing the restaurant always put down their forks and knives to sing along as soon as they hear the first few bars of this fast-tempoed favorite. And when this happened during our dinner together, these poor Los Angelenos looked absolutely bewildered. They’d never visited Tennessee before, especially the mountains. After the music stopped (they were polite city folks, after all), they finally asked what the song was and why everyone knew it. When the laughter at my table stopped, we explained that “Rocky Top” is one of Tennessee’s 8 state songs, that it has served for the University of Tennessee’s fight song since the 1970s, and it’s practically an anthem for the people who will always call Tennessee’s mountains and hills home.
So, with the beloved song’s extensive reach, it isn’t surprising to learn that it’s got a bit of history behind it, too.
Rocky Top History: The Gatlinburg Inn
The Gatlinburg Inn, located at 755 Parkway in Gatlinburg, has been a huge part of East Tennessee history since it was built in 1937 on land that was once a family farm. At the time, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park — the original area attraction — was still in its infancy. The park was officially founded just a few years earlier, and owner/hotelier R.L. Maples knew his little mountainside location was at the foot of something great.
His property grew up fast. The Gatlinburg Inn was home to the city’s offices between 1946 and 1947, Gatlinburg’s first press newspaper was started at the inn, and Gatlinburg’s first dentist once had an office at the Inn, too.
By the 1960s, though, the hotel was a retreat. Vacationing dignitaries, stars and businessmen like President Herbert Hoover, First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, Dinah Shore and J.C. Penney all laid their sleepy heads here.
According to legend, the couple was working on a collection of slow country songs for Archie Campbell and guitarist Chet Atkins. One afternoon, the Bryants got bored with the ballads, and decided to pen something fun and fast as a temporary diversion. The song they came up with, though, made history: This is where “Rocky Top” was born.
The Gatlinburg Inn’s rich history makes it a landmark for locals and a favorite place for visitors. You can book a night in the Rocky Top Room, No. 388, to stir your own creative juices or just celebrate Tennessee life in one of the Inn’s other unique room arrangements.
For more information about the historic Gatlinburg Inn, including reservations and accomodations, check out www.gatlinburginn.com or call 865-436-5133. You can explore more about the Gatlinburg Inn’s diverse history here.
Looking to learn even more about Pigeon Forge and Smoky Mountain History? Check out the following posts and pages:
- The History of Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Sevierville
- East Tennessee History: Pigeon Forge and the Smoky Mountains in the Civil War
(P.S. If you decide to visit Rickard Ridge BBQ — maybe on your way to or from Pigeon Forge — make sure to ask to meet owners Mark and Sheila Rickard. You won’t find sweeter, kinder folks anywhere! And be make sure to take a jar of Mark’s rib rub home with you — it makes EVERYTHING taste a little bit like East Tennessee! Also, plan your visit for a Tuesday or Thursday night — you might get to meet Jerry Isaacs, the famous Chicken Man!)