I’m probably one of the few people you will ever meet who cries over the song “Rocky Top.” I’ve always loved it, although it means different things to me now than it did when I was a kid. The first time I ever remember listening to it was at my cousin Melenia’s house, on her portable record player, in her bedroom. I’m pretty sure that it had actually belonged to her dad, but when she asked for a record player of her own, she needed something to play on it, so a few of his old 45’s made their way to her. I remember being mesmerized by the image of a woman who was “half bear, other half cat/ wild as a mink, but sweet as soda pop,” and how those attributes would keep her endeared to someone forever. Although, truthfully, at the time, I just thought that a mink was something you put around your shoulders, so I didn’t understand exactly how that could be “wild” at all! (It would be several years before I would come to know that there was an actual animal called a mink; I would be an adult in my forties before I would know that my Papaw Anderson used to hunt and trap actual minks on the creekbanks and rivers in Grayson County to help provide for his family when his twelve children were growing up.) I would even eventually get to see the Osborne Brothers, the two men from Kentucky (not Tennessee), who wrote the song, perform it live and in person at the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, on one of the many trips to the venue that I made with Russ while serving on the Tennessee Library Association Board and traveling to Nashville every few months for board meetings.
Moving to Tennessee in 2000 put a whole new spin on the song, though. A friend from college, who, like me, grew up in Southwestern Virginia, telling me that, when she and her family moved to Northeast Tennessee, the preschool her son attended made them learn “Rocky Top” in school. I remember thinking, “Good Lord, this place is like a cult!” I didn’t know the half of it. I was just starting as a graduate student at the University of Tennessee when I moved here, working on my Masters of Science in information Sciences through an online cohort. I vowed that I would never wear that horrendous shade of orange! My first trip to campus for orientation, though, and there I stood in the bookstore, trying to decide between three or four different t-shirts, excited for my first-ever Vols attire to hang in my closet when I got back to Bristol. Perhaps the most exciting find I ever made, which annoyed the crap out of my friend Lynne, was the 4-track CD of “Rocky Top” that I discovered in a little store at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville during one of those trips to the Opry. Yes, you read that correctly, there were four different versions of the song on one CD, and I played it all the way through on repeat for almost an entire trip from Bristol to Nashville with her in my car once. It might not have irritated her quite so much without the “Rocky Top Club Mix” (no, I’m not kidding, I promise – look it up for yourselves at https://www.amazon.com/Rocky-Top-Osborne-Brothers/dp/B000002Q0Z – that brings back some memories – I may need to buy that CD again, having lost mine many years ago).
In all of my years in Tennessee, I have watched the Vols and cheered for them, when things were good and when things were bad. Mostly bad, because let’s face reality, Peyton Mannings don’t come along every four years or more frequently. I’ve seen numerous games lost that we had in the bag, but then just beat ourselves for multiple reasons over the years. I’ve learned to hate every other team in the SEC (that’s the Southeastern Conference, in case you weren’t already aware), especially the Florida Gators and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Whether it was fair or not, I’ve seen coaches’ careers end when they failed to lead the team to a winning season or three (I even remember one who left Knoxville under the cover of night because leaving in the daylight likely would have gotten him killed, or at least wounded in some way).
My first UT football game was when I was a student. I paid extra fees to be able to get a student ticket because online students didn’t have to pay those fees. And it was not cheap. I went with my friend Andy, from college, who grew up in Knoxville, so he knows everything about the stadium, the rituals, the traditions, etc. I was going to learn from the Master! They won that day. I can’t for the life of me remember who they played, but they won. And I remember walking on air all the way back to the shuttle bus that would take me back to the far-away lot where I parked my car, chanting over and over and over again, “I said it’s great [clap-clap] to be [clap-clap] a Tenn-e-ssee Vol [clap-clap]!” And it was. It truly, truly was… The years when we had established a little scholarship for the School of Information Sciences (SIS), Russ and I used to get tickets to one of the home games each year, I suppose as a means of saying thanks for our monetary support. Our monetary support was not great, so we always had seats way high up. But in Neyland Stadium, it doesn’t matter where you sit because you’re always surrounded by other warm-hearted, hot-blooded Vols. We typically had seats near some of the SIS professors, so I tried to be on my best behavior, even though I was an alum by then and there were no grades at stake – just my professional reputation! And maybe one of my absolute favorite UT games was the Battle at Bristol, between UT and Virginia Tech, at Bristol Motor Speedway. Bristol, a town which straddles the state lines of Tennessee and Virginia, was the perfect spot to host this mega-game. I’ll tell you unequivocally, there has never been another game like that in my life. Growing up in Southwestern Virginia, you’re programmed to be a Tech fan; living in Northeastern Tennessee, you’re programmed to be a UT fan. Russ is from Chicago – and truthfully, I’m the sports enthusiast in our home – he is just the phenomenal man who sat out in the cold in the dead of winter to go through the ticket lottery so his football-crazed wife could see the Vols come out on top in a match-up that they statistically should not have won. (The man is my hero on so many levels!)
Did I mention that, in January 2002, less than two weeks after Russ and I got married, I left him at home in Bristol while I traversed to New Orleans for the first time with a group of SIS students I’d never met face-to-face to go to the American Library Association’s Mid-Winter Conference? And while we were there, two of my classmates treated me to dinner at a place called Irene’s (my middle name) as a congratulatory present on my recent marriage. Long story short, Peyton Manning and his younger brother Eli came in and caused us to have to wait like an hour for our table. But I sat about six feet away from Peyton Manning at dinner and was totally fan-girling, calling everyone I knew on my Blackberry mobile phone to tell them who was sitting across from me, almost close enough to touch! (There weren’t camera phones then, unfortunately.) I begged my friends to let me go talk to him, but they wouldn’t let me. They said that he deserved his privacy – his was an NFL quarterback, and Eli hadn’t even been on my radar until that night. I kept trying to convince them that, as fellow Vols, Peyton would want us to come over and say hello. They wouldn’t buy it. I’ve always regretted not going over and saying hello, at least, anyway, and telling him that we still loved him in Tennessee. You don’t get opportunities like that more than once n a lifetime, typically.
I started telling you all about my obsession with “Rocky Top,” though, in order to convey how exciting it is to be a Tennessee Vol this year. Today marked our sixth won of the season; we have played six games. I can’t tell you the last time UT had a start like this, if ever. What I can tell you is that they have scared me more than a few times watching the games on TV this season. Our quarterback (Hendon Hooker – I love a name that alliterates like that, btw), is truly talented, and often makes daring runs to achieve the yardage that needs to be gained. But in true Tennessee fashion, these young men sometimes forget that they’re as awesome as they are and start beating themselves. They have blown some pretty big leads at different points this season and have clawed and scrambled to pull out the wins. But they’re doing it. And while I always love the Vols (I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that I don’t ever cuss and fuss and say bad things about the way they’re playing), it especially feels like a mystical magic is hanging over all of us in Tennessee this season, watching them knock out the Gators a few weeks ago, and today, defeating Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide. It could all end next week (although I hope and pray not), and we would have had an amazing 6-0 start. But I feel good about this year. I think Smokey’s got a bunch more sideline runs with the Vols Nation Flag in him. And I can tell you for certain that “it’s great [clap-clap] to be [clap-clap] a Tenn-e-ssee Vol [clap-clap]!” I can also promise you that every time the Proud of the Southland Marching Band strikes up “Rocky Top” one more time, this ol’ girl will be sitting somewhere, smiling like crazy, with tears in her eyes.