Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were legendary songwriters, responsible for multiple hit songs in multiple genres. But it wasn’t always easy. Like many songwriters, they struggled in their early years, writing and attempting to sell dozens of songs while living in a mobile home. Then in 1948, the song “Country Boy,” which was recorded by Little Jimmy Dickens, reached number seven on the music charts. And the Bryants’ careers took off.
After that early hit, the couple moved to Nashville, where they wrote songs for a number of country music artists, as well as for themselves (although they never achieved as much acclaim as performers).
Later in the decade, the Bryants expanded into pop music, writing songs for several very popular pop artists such as Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. For a time, the Bryants lived in Hendersonville, Tennessee, very near Johnny Cash and Orbison.
During their prolific careers, the Bryants wrote over 6 thousand songs, with more than 1,500 being recorded, amounting to more than 250 million records sold. But of all of the incredible work Felice and Boudleaux did, nothing eclipses the writing of what would become the state song of Tennessee, the unofficial fight song for the University of Tennessee sports team, and a song beloved the world over – Rocky Top!
It all started when Felice and Boudleaux checked into the Historic Gatlinburg Inn on August 28, 1967. The purpose of their visit was to focus on writing songs for the artist Archie Campbell – slow songs for an album to be entitled Golden Years.
The Bryants had developed a love affair with the town of Gatlinburg. It served as their muse and escape from the Nashville scene. The couple eventually moved there, and even purchased their own hotel.
Wish that I was on old Rocky Top
Down in the Tennessee hills
Ain’t no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top
Ain’t no telephone bills
It is said that the Bryants wrote Rocky Top as a joke. The story goes that Felice had grown tired of the slow tempo material they were working on and wanted to write something fast and upbeat. Boudleaux belted out the opening line off the top of his head, and Felice took over. 15 minutes later, the lyrics to Rocky Top had been committed to paper in their room at the Gatlinburg Inn.
The song speaks of mourning for a simpler time in a simpler place – living in the hills of East Tennessee, without all the problems of modern society. It also contains a common mountain music theme involving federal government revenuers going into the hills to look for moonshiners – and never making it back out!
Later that year, the Bryants sold the song to the Osborne Brothers. The Osborne Brothers performed the song all over the world, but the thing that really ignited the song’s popularity was when the Pride of the Southland Marching Band at the University of Tennessee began playing the song at football games in 1972.
Fanbases of Southeastern Conference sports teams across the Southeast may groan when hearing the University of Tennessee marching band play the song over and over…but it’s a delight to the ears of Vols fans everywhere. In 1982, the state of Tennessee adopted the song as an official state song, and the legend only grew.
The song has been performed by countless artists over the years, including country artists such as Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty, Lynn Anderson, Buck Owens, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It has also been covered by non-country artists such as the rock band Phish.
Both of the Bryants have been gone for a long time – Boudleaux since 1987 and Felice since 2003 – but they definitely have not been forgotten. They have been recognized many times over for their contribution to popular music, being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Most recently, they are to be posthumous recipients of the Presidents Award (a lifetime achievement award) from the Americana Music Association. This award is to be presented at the 18th annual Americana Honors and Awards at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on September 11th.
Amazingly, it is possible to this day to sit in the same room where Felice and Boudleaux wrote Rocky Top so long ago – not just in the same room, but on the very same furniture. This article is littered with photos from the room today (click any image to view it much larger). The Historic Gatlinburg Inn has maintained a vintage, authentic appearance throughout the hotel, but management has been especially careful to keep Room 388 (now known as “the Rocky Top Room”) exactly as it was when the Bryants stayed there (other than a few modern conveniences for a more comfortable stay).
Even if you don’t stay in the exact same room, you can still feel that old school, vintage, songy vibe throughout the place. It just feels different and unique here. It is not unusual to find a songwriter sitting in one of our famous front porch rocking chairs picking a tune on an old acoustic guitar.
Off topic, but our guests are also treated to the best breakfast in Gatlinburg, with eggs, made-from-scratch biscuits and gravy, sausage or chicken tenders, waffles, fresh fruit and more – all free. But I digress.
The Bryants were true American originals, just like the Historic Gatlinburg Inn. So come experience history for yourself. The Bryants were far from the only people of significance to stay here. Just check out the photos on the wall past the front desk to see some of the other famous business people, political figures, sports stars and celebrities who have stayed here.
If you’re looking for a typical, modern hotel, then sorry…we may not be for you. But if you have an appreciation for history or a love of song…or just want to stay in the hotel with the number one location in all of Gatlinburg, right on the main strip next to the SkyLift…then this is your kind of place!