It was October 21st, 1972, marking the third weekend of October, which meant fierce SEC rivals the Tennessee Volunteers would take on the Alabama Crimson Tide in their annual college football tilt—this year played at the Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. Tennessee was ranked #10 in the country, and Alabama of course as the perennial powerhouse was ranked #3. The entire college football world was engrossed in the game that had national implications, and it ended up being one for the ages.
As underdogs, the Tennessee Volunteers knew they would need a spark of magic to overcome their rivals from across the state line. Though the official fight song of the University of Tennessee was (and still is) “Down on the Field,” they decided to enlist a newer, and more popular song at the time that just may give their boys the jolt of spirit that they needed to overcome what everyone considered was the better team.
Written by Country Music Hall of Famers Felice and Boudleaux Bryant who are best known for penning all of those iconic Everly Brothers hits, “Rocky Top” written in 1967 was a slight change of pace for the songwriting pair. Penned while they were staying at the historic Gatlinburg Inn in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee, it was inspired by their surroundings in the Great Smoky Mountains. Later that year, on Christmas Day in 1967, the Osborne Brothers released their version of the song.
Of course like all bluegrass songs in country, “Rocky Top” struggled to become a “hit” on radio, only reaching #33. But among the populous in Tennessee and beyond, “Rocky Top” became synonymous with bluegrass and Tennessee. It is one of the most widely-known and beloved banjo songs in history, performed on the banjo by the late Sonny Osborne, but of course covered hundreds of times by other bands and artists in a variety of ways.
Sensing that a rendition of “Rocky Top” could really whip up both the players and the crowd at the game, Tennessee’s band director at the time, WJ Julian, had the “Pride of the Southland Band” work up an especially rousing version of the song to debut at halftime. The crowd went wild over it. Then and there, “Rocky Top” officially became the unofficial fight song for the University of Tennessee, with the Bryant copyright to the song officially writing in permission to the University to use it for any sporting events. Portions of the song sometimes are now played as many as 50 times during a game.
As for the game against Alabama itself, it was a defensive tilt, with underdog Tennessee and their fast defense forcing two fumble recoveries within the Crimson Tide’s 30 yard line, resulting in a touchdown and field goal. All Alabama was able to muster was a field goal themselves … until the final 2 minutes of the game, when Alabama scored two touchdowns within a 36-second span. Alabama ended up winning 17-10 in a heartbreaking last-minute defeat.
But “Rocky Top” stuck as a Tennessee tradition, and even became one of Tennessee’s official state songs in 1982. And of course, “Rocky Top” is still played at every Tennessee football home game. Another tradition was spurned in 1997, when after defeating Alabama, then quarterback Peyton Manning officially conducted the band playing “Rocky Top,” which now happens after every big win, including when Tennessee defeated the Crimson Tide on October 15th, 2022, 52-49, vaulting the Volunteers to #3 in the nation.
Now “Rocky Top” isn’t just synonymous with bluegrass and Tennessee. It’s now a football tradition all to itself.