There’s a section of Alabama south of Birmingham, West of Montgomery and North of Mobile known as the Black Belt, named for the region’s dark, fertile soil. The inhabitants of the Black Belt had an annoying habit of not supporting the political powers that be and, as punishment, when it came time to lay interstate highways, those powers made sure to skirt the edges of the region.
This accomplished two things. First it damaged the area’s chances for industrial development. Access to trucking lanes and interstates is important for industry to maintain supply and shipping lines. Second, it made travelling through the Black Belt a sometimes lengthy and lonely task.
I’m not much of a Blues man myself. I am an occasional listener of the Blues. But, I found on long drives through Wilcox County over to Marion or winding my way to Tuscaloosa that I am much more inclined to play some of the ancient blues masters of the Deep South like Lead Belly, Robert Johnson and the blind men from Texas, Willie Johnson and Lemon Jefferson. There is something about that music and that place that seemed to just be right.
I think most places where people congregate and make music remains somewhat haunted by the echoes of the music through the generations.
California, New York, Detroit, and the East Tennessee mountains all have a unique musical spirit.
I think of that spirit sometimes driving through Sevier County where, when the tourist season is high, you can spend a lot of time in your car getting from Dollywood to the National Park or over to Smokies Stadium. The following are my picks to get you through the ride.
7. “Hot Rod Lincoln” by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
Not every connection is geographic. Hot Rod Lincoln was written by a guy from Minnesota and Montana and sung – at least in its most popular version by a guy from Idaho. But car culture is American culture and Pigeon Forge is one of America’s great bastions of car culture. And no matter where Commander Cody was from, those rockabilly licks don’t have their roots in potato country. On the interstate, the frenetic pace will have you pressing the gas pedal a little harder, but in Rod Run traffic, where Pigeon Forge is flooded with classic American made automobiles, it’s the perfect accompaniment. Also, the song contains the line “Daddy said, ‘Son, you’re gonna drive me to drinkin’ if you don’t stop driving that Hot. Rod. Lincoln.” which is American poetry and should be taught in every American school.
6. “Move It On Over” by Hank Williams Sr
The hard-living country legend was 29 years old when he died – probably somewhere in East Tennessee – during a now-legendary car ride through a blizzard from Knoxville, to a show in Canton, Ohio. The evidence indicates that Williams was dead before he left Knoxville, and the guy chauffeuring him North either refused to admit it or didn’t know. Williams’ classic hit is not only catchy, it’s thematically appropriate when you’re trying to cross six lanes of Pigeon Forge traffic.
5. “Back Where I Come” From by Kenny Chesney
The Tennessee mountains traditionally skew much more to Bluegrass than traditional country. But Kenny Chesney, from the tiny East Tennessee community of Luttrell, is the rare exception. This ode to life in East Tennessee is the perfect blend of nostalgia and catchy country crooning.
4. “Canned Heat” by Chet Atkins
Another Luttrell boy, this one from the shadow of Clinch Mountain, Atkins was a virtuoso guitar picker who influenced generations to come. His trademark instrumental style is perfect music for ramblin’, just getting out and moving through East Tennessee, whether through traffic or on the backroads of Sevier County.
3. “Tennessee Homesick Blues” by Dolly Parton
What? You thought we were gonna get out of here without any Dolly? We would not ignore the Queen of East Tennessee, Sevier County and, quite possibly, the world. Dolly has spent her massive career writing love letters to her East Tennessee home. How do we pick just one? It’s tough, man. We went with Tennessee Homesick Blues – which came out on the soundtrack to the Dolly-Sly Stallone vehicle “Rhinestone” because it features a classic Dolly yodeling intro.
2. “Jolene” by Dolly Parton
We weren’t going with one Dolly. And, honestly, trying to pick just two Dolly songs seems wrong. We were tempted to go with Coat of Many Colors here, but nobody needs to be cruising through Pigeon Forge fighting back tears. So it’s Jolene, Dolly’s desperate plea for some floozy bank teller not to steal her man, which shows Dolly’s unlimited imagination because there ain’t been a bank teller born that could still a man from peak Dolly Parton. The haunting harmonies and guitar picking provide a master course in song craft. It’s easily one of the greatest songs ever recorded and it’s birthed right there in the Smoky Mountains. If you’re feeling a need to step outside the box, we’ll allow the Miley Cyrus backyard version here but just because she’s Dolly’s god-daughter.
1. “Rocky Top” by The Osborne Brothers
Written by Felice and Bourdleaux Bryant in 1967 in a hotel in Gatlinburg, Rocky Top is the Sevier Countiest song ever recorded. Officially adopted as the state’s fifth official song, Rocky Top has become a staple at University of Tennessee football games, but regardless of your thoughts regarding the Vols, the song is a banger. Written in about 10 minutes, it manages to wax poetic about moonshine, wild women and killing federal law enforcement officers all with an infectious rhythm. Also you can have some fun betting your friends and family over the gender of the Osborne Brothers lead singer Bobby, whose high reedy vocal has led many a Vol fan to assume it was a woman singing.