Leslie County: 'Rocky Top' has different meaning here

HYDEN — Take the Hyden exit off the Hal Rogers Parkway, and one's car is immediately on the "Tim Couch Pass."

The road is named for the hometown football hero who went on to become a University of Kentucky sports icon.

To get into Hyden, the Leslie County seat, one turns left off the Tim Couch Pass onto the "Osborne Brothers Way."

The road is named for the hometown Bluegrass Music act, brothers Bobby and Sonny Osborne, who went on to record and popularize the song — Rocky Top — that became a University of Tennessee sports anthem.

In the Eastern Kentucky county that both gave UK one of its greatest sports heroes and gave one of the Wildcats' fiercest rivals its unofficial fight song, here's what I wondered:

Do people like the song Rocky Top?

The road to Rocky Top

At 78, Bobby Osborne teaches mandolin and guitar at Hazard Community Technical College. He also still performs the music that made him and his brother (now retired from performing) famous.

That he would end up the singer of a song so linked with the Tennessee Volunteers is heavy with irony, Osborne said Friday.

The singer was born in Hyden and lived his first eight years there before his father took a job in Dayton, Ohio, and the family moved north.

"My dad pretty much made us like Kentucky sports," Osborne said with a laugh. "I've always liked the Kentucky basketball team."

In 1967, a lifelong UK fan unknowingly took the step that would lead him to a prominent spot in Tennessee sports lore.

The Osborne Brothers were one night away from going into the recording studio. They planned to cut a ballad, My Favorite Memory, as "the A side" of a record. They needed a "B side" song (for the young: that was the side of the record not expected to become a hit).

Osborne says he paid a visit on songwriters Boudleaux and Felice Bryant.

An unfinished version of a song called Rocky Top was played.

"I liked it. I told them, 'If you can finish that by tomorrow, we'll record it," Osborne said.

Once the record came out, as planned, it was My Favorite Memory that was played on the radio. At the time, Osborne says, conventional wisdom was that ballads stayed on the charts longer because disc jockeys were more inclined to play them.

On Christmas Day, 1967, famed country music DJ Ralph Emery went rogue. He flipped the record and played Rocky Top — an up-tempo lament over a simpler life lost — on his all-night show over 50,000-watt Nashville AM radio station WSM.

"It just took off," Bobby Osborne recalls. "Nobody ever requested My Favorite Memory after that. It was always Rocky Top."

Dean Osborne, the director of the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music at the Hazard Community Technical College (and a cousin to the Osborne Brothers), says Rocky Top is now reputed to be the most-often recorded Bluegrass song ever.

It took five years, but in 1972 a UT pep band struck up the tune at a Volunteers ball game.

"Rocky Top has been the unofficial Volunteers anthem since the UT band first played it," says the Tennessee Traditions section of the Web site

Even a guy born and raised as a Kentucky Wildcats fan acknowledges that being part of the singing group that popularized what became the unofficial Tennessee fight song has been a boon.

"Oh, my, Tennessee has been good to me," Bobby Osborne said. "Tennessee fans sing Rocky Top everywhere, everywhere. And there are a lot of Tennessee fans."

Home to a UK icon

Mike Whitaker, the former Leslie County High School football coach, says he knew Tim Couch had a chance to be something special before the quarterback was out of middle school.

"He had every tool and you could tell he was going to have size," Whitaker said.

By the time Couch was a 6-foot-5, 200-pound high school junior, he was well on his way to becoming a national phenomenon. Flinging the football in the wide-open attack Whitaker copied from Florida State, Couch set what were then national records for passing yards (12,091), touchdown passes (133) and completions (872).

For Leslie County, it was a golden era. As a junior, Couch took the Eagles to the final four of the state playoffs. He began his senior season (1995) with a dazzling individual performance in a Leslie upset of perennial state power Fort Thomas Highlands.

"That was the heyday of sports for us here in Leslie County," said Hyden Mayor Lonnie Hendrix. "It was such a good time. They'd go somewhere to play a game and the joke was there wasn't anybody left behind in town."

The big-time football prospect from small-town Appalachia captivated the country's imagination. USA Today named him national high school Offensive Player of the Year. Every big-name college football school in the country had a scholarship available to Couch.

When it came time for Couch to pick a college, it came down to Kentucky and Tennessee.

The quarterback went with his heart and his home-state school and said no to UT — which had a pretty good incumbent starting QB at the time, chap by the name of Peyton Manning.

Though Bill Curry and Co. wasted Couch's freshman year at UK, in the next two seasons under Hal Mumme the quarterback became one of Kentucky's all-time greats.

Couch led UK to an upset of Alabama; helped the Cats to a road win at LSU; and guided Kentucky to its first New Year's Day Bowl (the Jan. 1, 1999, Outback) since Bear Bryant coached the Cats.

What Couch never did do was beat Tennessee. He never came close. In Couch's three seasons at UK, the Volunteers hung 56, 59 and 59 points on the Cats.

When you consider that the UT pep band plays Rocky Top after every score, Couch got an earful of the song his fellow Leslie Countians made famous.

Does Couch like Rocky Top?

"I have to say no," he said, laughing. "I heard it way too much. And they'd run me out of Lexington now if I said yes."

The county's verdict

So citizens of Leslie County, when it comes to the song Rocky Top, yea or nay?

"As a sports fan, no, I don't like it," says Dwayne Adams, a 1984 Leslie County High graduate who broadcasts high school sports for two Hazard radio stations. "I'm sick of hearing it at the UK-UT football games. Now, as long as it's not in sports, I do like it. I like the Osborne Brothers."

Inside Horton's Auto Parts and Hardware, John Horton says, "I have a problem with the song when it's with Tennessee. It's hard to take. As an Osborne Brothers song, for me, I like it then."

At the Adams Hardware, Mitchell Morgan was decked out in a blue UK baseball cap.

"Yeah, I do like Rocky Top," he said. "Guess I've heard it so long, I've just got used to it."

They have a UK T-shirt hanging in the front window of the Hyden Shoes and Boots Store.

Yet "when I hear that song, I always relate it to the Osborne Brothers," Lisa Baker Sizemore said. "So I like it, the song and the people both."

Lois Garrison said her son, Shawn, used to keep statistics for every Kentucky Wildcats game that was broadcast. "So we're all big Kentucky fans," she said. Yet "I do like (Rocky Top). I don't hold it against the song" that it is so linked with the Big Orange.

Hendrix, the Hyden mayor, acknowledged that he gets a little tired of hearing Rocky Top during UT victories over Kentucky. "But when that happens, I think about the Osborne Brothers, and think about all that they've meant to this community, all they've contributed. That makes me smile," he said.

In Leslie County, this makes them smile, too:

It took the singing of a couple of Kentucky boys to popularize what became the Tennessee Volunteers' unofficial fight song.

Good 'ol Rocky Top.