Small town sees Rocky Top in its future

Despite the famous bluegrass song, Rocky Top, Tenn., has never actually been home sweet home to anyone.

It’s not a town at all, but a rocky outcropping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, more than 5,400 feet high on the Appalachian Trail.

Now, an East Tennessee county commissioner and a group of silent partners want to do something about that. Reasoning that the name Rocky Top has cachet, they are promising an impoverished town of 1,700 big things if the residents would be willing to change the town’s name from Lake City to that of the song.

As most college football fans in the Southeast know, “Rocky Top” is the fight song of the University of Tennessee Volunteers. The bluegrass standard is one of the state songs of Tennessee.

Country composers Boudleaux and Felice Bryant of Gatlinburg, Tenn., wrote the song in 10 minutes in 1967, inspired by tales about the spot on Thunderhead Mountain, about 50 miles from Lake City.

The song has since been recorded by dozens of performers, including Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell, the Osborne Brothers and Lynn Anderson.

In Lake City, supporters hope a name change would have them tuning in newfound prosperity. Development plans include a Disney-style interactive, 3-D animated theater; a Branson, Mo.-style live music venue; an indoor-outdoor waterpark and a 500-seat paddleboat restaurant on an as yet-to-be-constructed artificial lake, said Anderson County Commissioner Tim Isbel.

And that’s just phase one.

Other ideas include a candy corn company — a very loose reference to the moonshine-soaked lyric, “Corn don’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.”

And they even have an idea for a mascot: a skating duck named Streudel.

There are also plans down the road for an amusement park, and Isbel says he is not concerned that the hugely popular Dollywood theme park is only an hour away.

At city hall Thursday night, a standing-room-only crowd broke into loud applause after the council took the first step toward making the change, voting to ask the state legislature for authorization. State Rep. John Ragan was at the meeting and said he thought it would pass easily in Nashville.

Isbel won’t reveal the names of everyone involved in the project, but he said two of his business partners are Knoxville residents Buddy Warren and Brad Coriell.

Isbel credits Warren with the idea for creating a real Rocky Top, Tenn., but Isbel said Warren is currently in the hospital and unable to be interviewed. A review of state records shows Warren has incorporated 18 businesses with the name Rocky Top since April of this year. They include Rocky Top Beer, Rocky Top Cola, Rocky Top Vodka and Rocky Top Orange, Power Drink.

At least one of those companies produces a product. Rocky Top Water comes in bottles with a logo suggestive of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey. Coriell, who knows Warren through church, said Warren previously worked installing water filters. Coriell is an artist, and he is the designer for the project.

Oddly enough, it wouldn’t be the first time Lake City changed its name in the hopes of changing its fortunes.

The former coal mining town used to be called Coal Creek and was the site of a bloody labor uprising in the late 1800s. In the 1930s, the Tennessee Valley Authority built the Norris Dam nearby, forming Norris Lake. Town officials changed the name to capitalize on their proximity to Norris Lake. There is actually no lake within Lake City proper.

Then Interstate 75 came through, with Lake City on its west and Norris Lake on its east, putting the brakes on the town’s aspirations.

Isbel says the town’s proximity to the interstate is why the development ideas have a chance to succeed.

However, Lake City Mayor Tim Sharp on Thursday night warned of a possible complication. A company in the tourist mecca of Gatlinburg recently sent the town a letter saying it already owns the rights to multiple Rocky Top trademarks. The council promised to discuss the matter with the company before taking a final vote on the name change, likely in January.

And some historic preservationists think the name change is a big mistake. Barry Thacker is president of the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation. His group recently sent out an email saying, “We believe that some things in life can’t be bought, including a community’s cultural heritage.”