Tennessee town’s rocky road to becoming Rocky Top

Story highlights

Tennessee town looks to change name to Rocky Top

Investors have proposed multimillion-dollar project to transform town

Copyright owners of the bluegrass song sue to block name change

"We just want to see this happen for the community," county commissioner says

Lake City, Tennessee CNN  — 

Two strangers came in with big promises and plans to save a dying town.

A multimillion-dollar water park. A 3-D interactive theater. A pirate-themed restaurant. A country music theater to draw singers. And that’s not all: an athletic complex to host children’s leagues and a sports museum honoring University of Tennessee athletics. A fancy hotel. And an amusement park.

Think Dollywood.

Branson, Missouri.

Disney World.

All of it can be yours, on one condition: Change your town’s name.

To Rocky Top!

That coveted name in eastern Tennessee. The name of the famed bluegrass song that rises from Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Saturday afternoons, when 100,000 Tennessee football fans join with the university band and sing out in jubilation, their raucous cheers winding down the Tennessee River and cascading over the Smoky Mountains.

Rocky top, you’ll always be
Home sweet home to me.
Good ole Rocky top,
Rocky top Tennessee, Rocky top Tennessee.

This town of 1,800 nestled in the Appalachians mountains about 30 miles northwest of Knoxville changed its name once before, in 1936. The city leaders thought a name change would help draw tourists when the Tennessee Valley Authority put in a dam and a manmade lake several miles away. The proud mining town switched from Coal Creek to Lake City.

There is no lake in Lake City. If the tourists ever came, they left a long time ago. Like so much of small-town America, today there are few jobs, no industry and a cycle of poverty that engulfs the area. When the high school closed in the early 1980s, businesses soon followed.

Today, the median income sits around $14,000 a year. Methamphetamine abuse is so rampant, residents call their home the meth capital of Appalachia.

The downtown has two florists and a few other businesses, but most of the buildings are dilapidated. Chapman Restaurant was once a thriving place where locals came for supper. Now, its walls stand as a facade, a sign of what once was.

The best thing the tiny town has going for it is two exits off Interstate 75 – a developer’s dream. That’s what got the attention of the developers of Rocky Top.

They had pitched their plan before. The people in Townsend sent them packing.

But in Lake City, they found many eager townspeople, wanting jobs and willing to call their home by a different name. More than 500 people packed Main Street Baptist Church last fall for a bean and cornbread social. Most were interested in the venture, but not everybody.

“Get rid of the drugs!” one woman hollered. “Stop the drugs!”

The plans were approved. The town grew excited.

Less excited were the owners of the song’s copyright and property trademark. They filed suit to block the name change.

“Rocky Top is a world-famous and distinctive mark that popularly conjures notions of the copyrighted song owned by House of Bryant,” says the suit, filed in U.S. District Court. “Lake City’s attempt to change its name to Rocky Top represents an unlawful government taking and violation of House of Bryant’s due process rights.”

Judge Thomas A. Varlan heard legal arguments Monday in Knoxville on whether to issue a preliminary injunction that would put the plans on hold – a decision that could, perhaps, decide the fate of the town. The judge took the case under advisement and will issue his ruling later, court clerk Julie Norwood said.

The fight here is very real. It pits those wanting what they feel is best for the town against those who cherish its storied history, when forebears in the coal mines fought a war against the Tennessee National Guard.

And the name change raises serious questions. At what lengths should a town go to try to save its economy? In an era when sports franchises sell the names of stadiums to the highest bidders, does the fight in Lake City foreshadow something greater in America? What if Microsoft threatened to leave the city of Redmond, Washington, if it didn’t change its name?

And will changing the town name to Rocky Top lead to prosperity or broken promises?

A haven for ‘poor man’s cocaine’

George Robinson has clipped hair for 43 years at City Barber Shop. He points to a mud puddle out front that’s been there ever since he opened. When cars go by, “it splashes plumb to the top.”

If the puddle ain’t been fixed all these years, pardon him for being a bit skeptical. Don’t get him wrong. He’s all for the project “if it materializes like it’s supposed to.”

George Robinson has clipped hair in Lake City for 43 years. He's for the project "if it materializes like it's supposed to."

“I’m waiting to see somebody exchange some money,” the barber says.

A stuffed wild turkey with a 6-inch gobbler stares from the wall. His dog Buddy, a pit bull mix, ambles over, sniffs a stranger’s knees and huffs before moseying back to his red canopy bed.

“I think it’s a silly-ass name,” says Ricky Seeber.

The others in the shop kick heels and laugh.

Seeber hails from a mining family; his dad and grandparents worked the mines. Seeber didn’t like how the developers came in with their ultimatum: “No name change, no jobs. That’s about what it amounted to.”

“Just the name change: I don’t like it,” he says.

“Yeah, Rocky Top,” another snorts.

“You too, George?”

The barber pauses with his clippers. He’s seen the town go from a fine community 40 years ago to where it is now: a haven for “poor man’s cocaine.”

“If it can help young people get a job, it don’t bother me,” he says. “Used to be a booming place.”

From what the barber sees and hears, he guesses about 75% of the town is ready to go all Rocky Top. “About everybody is for it, because they see that the town is continuously going down.”

“But when it opens up,” Seeber chimes in, “it might be more than what you wanted.”

“Yeah, well, like everything else,” the barber says, “you gotta take the good with the bad. As long as it brings in the work, everybody’s for it.”

The clippers buzz. Buddy sits largely oblivious, drifting in and out of sleep, glancing up only when an occasional truck drives by.

Rocky Top is the talk in town. The week CNN visited, the Tennessee state House and Senate approved the name change. Eighteen eighth-graders were bused to the state capitol in Nashville to witness the historic House vote.

The City Council now must ratify the legislature’s approval, but it has said it won’t act until the judge makes a decision on the lawsuit.

The House of Bryant, owned by the sons of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, who wrote “Rocky Top,” said they felt that they had “no choice but to commence a lawsuit” after “their efforts to reach an understanding with Lake City” were unsuccessful.

“The Bryants,” the family said in a written statement, “hope that this matter can be resolved quickly.”

Two interstate exits and a huge opportunity

Anderson County Commissioner Tim Isbel shows off an array of impressive artistic renditions of the various phases of the Rocky Top plans, including a renovation of the entire downtown district that would transform it into one of the nicest-looking small towns in the South.

There are drawings of the water park, including an indoor pavilion that will bring in light and produce four rainbows at all times, and other big plans. The first phase is estimated to cost $20 million; all four phases, including the amusement park, could cost upward of $450 million, he says.

It’s easy to see why a town that has so little is so eager. The development is projected to create 175 to 225 jobs and bring in $50 million in revenue, including $6 million in taxes for the town. Lake City’s current annual budget is $3 million.

“We just see this as an opportunity to get this end of the county back to what it used to be. Give individuals places to work,” Isbel says.

Does he have any nostalgia for the loss of the name Lake City?

“We just want to see this happen for the community,” Isbel says. “There’s just so much magic in the name. Not the song, the name Rocky Top.”

The new name also speaks to the region’s mining heritage, he says. “Where does any coal come from? It comes from a rocky top.”

Isbel formed the Rocky Top Tennessee Marketing and Manufacturing Co. last year after the two original developers, Buddy Warren and Brad Coriell, proposed the idea. Warren was in a traumatic car crash late in the fall and is no longer part of the development, Isbel says.

Isbel has brought together eight prominent families – “the dream team” – as members of his board. The other original developer, Coriell, an artist based out of Nashville, also sits on the board.

Isbel emphasizes that this is not pie-in-the-sky stuff, that he believes this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to save the town. Everyone on the board, aside from Coriell, lives in the area and has “a vested interest in making this community better.”

“They want to give back and do what they can to get this venture started.”

Isbel almost gets misty-eyed when he recalls an event at the middle school. He had come prepared to talk about the rides and other fun stuff that may eventually come to town. None of the kids asked about that. They wanted to know whether there would be jobs available when they graduate high school.

In 18 months, he told them, the water park will open (assuming the lawsuit doesn’t block Rocky Top).

Winding down the roads of Lake City, Isbel points out the 300 acres where the water park would go and the eventual sites of the rest of the development.

“What other town do you see that has two exits and has all this available area?”

Lake City Vice Mayor Michael Lovely has longtime roots. His father was the mayor for decades and is the one who was instrumental in getting both exits off the interstate. Back then, his father was teased by locals: Why did this tiny town need two exits?

“They kinda gave him a hard time,” Lovely says. “That’s just what I’m saying. He seen the future.”

‘Embrace your heritage’

At the top of Militia Hill, Barry Thacker looks down upon the town. He can hardly contain his disdain for all that has transpired.

Barry Thacker overlooks Lake City from Militia Hill. "You embrace your heritage. You don't run away from it."

As the head of the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation, by accident Thacker helped bring about the whole Rocky Top thing. And he hates it.

Thacker and others had worked for years to get a building suitable for a state-of-the-art Coal Creek Miner’s Museum, a place that would honor the region’s mining past.

That building was finally secured last year, and officials celebrated the feat. It drew media attention – and that’s what caught the attention of the Rocky Top developers. They licked their chops at the two interstate exists and the vast land available.

To Thacker, it feels like the miner’s museum – which will still go ahead – got lost amid the fray. Plus, changing the town name to Rocky Top is just stupid, he says.

“You embrace your heritage. You don’t run away from it. They made the mistake once before; they changed the name from its heritage to Lake City. It didn’t bring tourists. Now, they’re doing it again.”

You get the feeling Thacker wants to spit. It’s left that bad of a taste in his mouth.

“Don’t embrace the words of a song to try to make yourself into something you’re not,” he says. “And that’s what I see it doing. The only way you get out of this poverty is to get an education and get the kids to college so they can qualify for high-paying jobs. But none of that seems to be the focus.”

A renowned engineer based out of Knoxville, Thacker knows that when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. He fears land speculation and the possibility the development may never come to fruition. Already, one local has gone from a $500,000 asking price for his property to $3 million.

Fixing the schools and educating the area children, Thacker says, would be money better spent. But that’s a much tougher fight.

“You’re dang right,” he says.

His foundation teamed up with the nearby community of Briceville to provide the local schoolchildren a way out. Over the past decade, the foundation sent 33 youths to college on nearly $300,000 in scholarships.

“It’s a dedicated effort to get the kids to college that I’m afraid those in Lake City have convinced everybody you don’t need to do that,” he says. “Their message is, ‘Rocky Top will do it for you.’ I just think that’s the wrong message.”

Thacker helped preserve Militia Hill, where he now stands. It was here where miners fought the Tennessee National Guard in 1891 in what is known as the Coal Creek War.

The mining companies had brought in prisoners to work the mines for free. The miners took up arms, eventually capturing the convicts and the guards and putting them on a train back to Knoxville. They sent a telegram to the governor: Convicts aren’t going to steal our jobs.

The governor dispatched the Tennessee National Guard. The war ensued. Battles and skirmishes lasted over a year. The miners lost the war but won the long-term battle. Mining companies were ordered to stop using convicts.

But tragedy struck on May 19, 1902, when a mine explosion killed 216 men – leaving only three men alive in the community of Fraterville. It remains one of the largest mine disasters in U.S. history.

At 93, Louise Nelson is one of the closest descendants to that disaster. Her great-grandmother had five caskets in her home at one time, “because five of her boys were killed.”

Nelson had wanted to go to the state legislature for years to propose changing the name of Lake City back to its Coal Creek origins. But she felt that she didn’t have the political muscle.

She wishes she’d pushed harder. “This is the heritage of so many people and all those people killed in that mine. I just feel like it’s desecrating their names and everything by changing the name to Rocky Top.”

She chooses her words cautiously. She’s too polite to let on how angry the name change makes her.

“I’m speaking up because there’s not many of us left,” says Nelson. “It’s a sadness with me. A hurtfulness. I feel like I have to stand up for my grandparents and all these people and my heritage. I don’t believe in staying in the past. You get nowhere with that, but I do want to preserve my heritage.”

To her, Rocky Top will never be home sweet home.