Who wrote the Rocky Top lyrics? A history, analysis of the iconic song

The Gatlinburg Inn

Written in 1967 by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant during a stay in Gatlinburg, “Rocky Top” was first performed by Bluegrass legends “The Osborne Brothers.” Though it didn’t really take off for them, theirs is still considered the definitive version (photo by Alaina O'Neal/TheSmokies.com)

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It’s human nature to take the familiar for granted.

When you grow up with the Smoky Mountains in your backyard, the mountains can become window dressing. An omnipresent decoration that fades to the background until something happens that draws it back to the fore.

Such is the case, when you live in East Tennessee, with Rocky Top, the unofficial theme song of the Smokies.

What does Rocky Top refer to?

Today, Rocky Top is mostly associated with the Tennessee Vols.

According to the Gatlinburg Inn, the original meaning of Rocky Top likely referred to Thunderhead Mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, because of its rocky peak.

Generally speaking, it can refer to Tennessee hills.

And here’s a fun fact: Rocky Top, Tennessee is an actual town in Anderson and Campbell counties.

The city changed its name from Lake City in 2014, despite an objection from the copyright owners of the song.

Who wrote the Rocky Top lyrics?

Rocky Top was written in 1967 by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant during a stay at the Gatlinburg Inn.

The song became popular when Lynn Anderson reached the charts with the song.

Rocky Top was also performed by Bluegrass legends, The Osborne Brothers. Though it didn’t really take off for them, theirs is still considered the definitive version.

Once Rocky Top became the official fight song for the University of Tennessee in the early 1970s and one of the State of Tennessee’s 147 official songs, it transcended into more than simply a catchy tune.

Every single East Tennessee high school marching band added it to the playlist.

Every wedding DJ facing a sagging crowd pulled out Rocky Top to get a little spark back in the proceedings.

It’s played anywhere a crowd of Volunteers gets together, including Saturdays in Knoxville where it is ubiquitous.

Over the decades, all that airplay has concealed what a strange little song it is.

The chorus, of course, is fine and I think the selling point that got this bizarre piece of art in the door of respectable places like the state capitol and Neyland Stadium.

A sign about Rocky Top at the Inn
A sign commemorates the song at the Gatlinburg Inn, which was written in room 388 (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

An analysis of Rocky Top’s quirky lyrics

The verses of Rocky Top, my friend, are the stuff of a transcendentalist mountaineer’s dream.

We start at the end. Rocky Top’s final verse seems straightforward but is actually hiding a deeper spiritual call to action.

I’ve had years of cramped-up city life
Trapped like a duck in a pen
All I know is it’s a pity life
Can’t be simple again

Trapped like a duck in a pen?

I haven’t kept a lot of livestock in my day but do you keep ducks in pens? Even if you do, that would not be the top answer on Family Feud.

If Steve Harvey asked you what kind of animal you keep in a pen and the first word out of your mouth is not pig, you would be in from some good-natured ribbing from a man in a very expensive suit.

“Duck?” Steve Harvey would ask, throwing a glance to the audience and bending slightly at the waist. “Wouldn’t the duck just FLY AWAY?”

Yes, Steve Harvey. The duck would fly away right up out of the pen. You don’t keep animals that can fly in pens. Dr. Maya Angelou did not write “I know why the penned bird sings,” right?

It’s a little deeper than we give it credit

And that’s our clue that the Bryants weren’t being literal. The duck is a metaphor for us, living our poor pitiful days in a city, working city jobs and trapped in a mindless existential “pen” of our own construction.

The Bryants were telling us the only person who can keep us locked up is ourselves. That we must transcend the two-dimensional pen in which we lock ourselves and fly free and away.

Wild as a mink, sweet as soda pop

Let’s look at another verse:

Once I had a girl on Rocky Top
Half bear, other half cat
Wild as a mink, but sweet as soda pop
I still dream about that

Let’s just be honest. That’s a lot of animals in one verse about a girl you want to date. Which half was bear? Which half was cat?

If she’s half bear and half cat, does any part of her remain human? Does that seem attractive at all? What the heck were Felice and Boudleaux into?

Was it a full moon? Does a silver bullet help with werebearcats? Dream about that? Those ain’t dreams, they’re nightmares, son.

Fangoria fan-fiction aside, if she’s half bear, half cat, do we really need to say she’s wild as a mink? Other than they used to make them into coats, I had only an inkling of what a mink is. They’re in the weasel family, FYI.

Still, are weasels particularly wild? She’s already half bear and half cat, what more does a weasel bring to the mix?

“Hey man, I met a girl.”

“Well, what’s she like?”

“Half bear, other half cat.”

“Wut? I bet that’s wild.”

“Man, you have no idea. She’s wild like a mink.”

“You mean one of those weasel things they use to make coats? Is that more or less wild than being half bear, half cat?”

“It’s cool man, she’s sweet as soda pop.”

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about anymore. Not everything has to be a simile, Charles.”

Gatlinburg Inn, downtown Gatlinburg
The Gatlinburg Inn is a historic hotel in downtown Gatlinburg (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

The two strangers looking for a moonshine still

Children everywhere probably sing along with this next verse without giving it much thought:

Once two strangers climbed ol’ Rocky Top
Lookin’ for a moonshine still
Strangers ain’t come down from Rocky Top
Reckon they never will

Boudleaux Bryant’s full name was Diadorius Boudleaux Bryant. Felice was born Matilda Genevieve Scaduto. 

She was a 19-year-old elevator operator who eloped with old Diadorius two days after they met in her native Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

He was 25. When he wore his hair longer with a goatee, he looked like someone perpetually down to play Ol’ Scratch himself in a community theater production of “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Felice said she recognized Boudleaux from a dream she had when she was 8.

I don’t know which one of them decided to write about offing federal agents and hiding the bodies, but I know this: If they didn’t have them hits, the Bryants were about a week and a half away from getting on that Bonnie and Clyde stuff.

Will corn actually grow on Rocky Top?

The last verse we’ll take a look at:

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

Y’all. Yes, corn will grow on Rocky Top. I promise you, corn will grow.

Matilda and Diadorius are feeding you some BS.

I’ve been up in those mountains and unless you’re just on the tippy, tippy top of some rocky peak, you can find a spot to grow some corn. If not right there, walk 100 yards over and you can find a spot.

You might have to clear some trees or something, but you can grow corn.

How do I know?

They had to have corn to put it in the ding-dang jar in the first place.

You live on Rocky Top without smoggy smoke or telephone bills, are you hauling your butt down the mountain to buy corn to make your shine? No, you are not.

You want to know what I think? I think the Bryants were laid up in a Gatlinburg hotel, drinking shine and casting Devil spells to create catbear women to groom Diadorius’s wondrous locks.

Go Vols.

What do you think of the good ole Rocky Top lyrics? Let us know in the comments.

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1 thought on “Who wrote the Rocky Top lyrics? A history, analysis of the iconic song”

  1. Ducks are kept in pens like chickens, they’re wings are clipped so they can’t fly away

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