There’s nothing more pleasing to the ears of Vols far and wide than the sound of “Rocky Top.” It seems like the rollicking tune has always been a UT tradition, but the song wasn’t debuted on campus until 1972. This year marks 50 years of the song that has provided an enduring nickname for campus and that opposing teams and their fans may even call infamous.
“Rocky Top” was penned by husband-and-wife songwriting team Felice and Boudleaux Bryant in 1967 in the Gatlinburg Inn while they were writing songs for country superstars Archie Campbell and Chet Atkins, both East Tennessee natives. “Rocky Top” was a diversion from the slower songs they had been working on. It took them just 10 minutes to write, but it would go on to be one of the most famous songs in Tennessee.
The Osborne Brothers, a bluegrass duo from Kentucky, recorded “Rocky Top” later that year and the song was an instant hit, reaching number 33 on the country music charts. In 1970, Lynn Anderson’s version of the song reached number 17 on the Billboard Country Top 100.
UT Band Director W J Julian decided to have the Pride of the Southland Band play “Rocky Top” at halftime of the October 21, 1972, football game against Alabama. Tennessee didn’t win the game, but the song quickly became a staple at UT athletic events.
In 1974 the pep band jazzed up “Rocky Top” for the 1974 Conference Coaches Association tournament, and that version is the one we hear today. In 1982, “Rocky Top” officially became one of Tennessee’s state songs.
The song’s popularity has only continued to grow. Not only is it heard on campus, but its influence stretches much further. It’s hard to go anywhere in East Tennessee and not hear “Rocky Top”—it’s played at weddings and parties and often covered in concerts. Dolly Parton delivered an iconic performance of the song at the 2009 UT commencement ceremony where she received an honorary doctorate, and Garth Brooks performed the anthem in front of more than 80,000 fans in Neyland Stadium in 2019.
While it’s not our official fight song, “Rocky Top” has earned respect as one of the best in college sports. Both NFL.com and Sports Illustrated included it in the top 10 of their lists of the greatest fight songs in college football.
With its rich history and modern influence—a controversial “woo” was added somewhere along the way—“Rocky Top” is one of UT’s most cherished, and contagious, traditions.