Tennessee State Songs and Anthems
Tennessee might well hold the record for the greatest number of official state songs. While some states boast of numerous "state songs," generally only one of them is deemed "official" while the others are honorary or specific to a genre (such as the official "state polka" or the official "state folk song"). As of 2022, the State of Tennessee lists ten official state songs on their webpage.
Tennessee's first official state song was "My Homeland, Tennessee," so sanctioned in 1925. "When It's Iris Time in Tennessee" (1935) and "My Tennessee" (1955) became the next two songs to be designated "official." Three of the state songs have been major hits: "Tennessee Waltz" (canonized in 1965), "Rocky Top" (in 1982) and "Smoky Mountain Rain" (in 2010).
Also included in this section of the database are songs that might have been contenders for state songs as well as ones that pay homage to Tennessee schools and colleges.
My Homeland, Tennessee When It's Iris Time in Tennessee My Tennessee Tennessee Waltz Rocky Top Tennessee, by Vivian Rorie
Tennessee's first official state song was "My Homeland, Tennessee," written by Roy Lamont Smith and Nell Grayson Taylor. Smith, originally from Freemont, Nebraska, had come to Tennessee in 1904 to join the faculty of the Cadek Conservatory of Music at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. Taylor was a native Tennessean from Chattanooga. Both of them had experienced some success publishing poetry and music before "My Homeland, Tennessee." Taylor published her first poem, "The Wooden Crosses," while stationed in France as a nurse during World War I, and Smith had written well-received songs such as the "Fairy Tale Suite."
The text for "My Homeland, Tennessee" was originally submitted to a contest seeking a patriotic state song for Tennessee. Smith added music to Taylor's words and the song won the competition. In 1925, the Tennessee General Assembly honored the winning song by officially adopting it as the state song of Tennessee.
Tennessee’s penchant for having multiple state songs got off to an early start when Willa Mae Waid’s ode to the state flower was adopted in 1935 by the 69th General Assembly as a “Tennessee State Song.” The iris had only been designated the state flower of Tennessee in 1933, apparently in ignorance of a similar action in 1919 that had named the the passion flower as the state’s sanctioned bloom. Ms. Waid, already a published songwriter living in Nashville, composed “Iris Time” in 1935 while working on her PhD. The Nashville Banner featured a photograph of Ms. Waid and a short description about the adoption of “Iris Time” as a state song in April, 1935.
Use the Advanced Search to find all of the occurrences of "When It's Iris Time in Tennessee" in the database.
The third song on the official list is “My Tennessee” by Frances Hannah Tranum. Tranum, a poet and songwriter from East Tennessee wrote it in 1931 to express her pride in the history and natural beauty of her native home. “My Tennessee” was adopted as an official state song in 1955.
"Tennessee Waltz" is surely the most popular, most recorded, and most widely known of the state's official state songs. It was written in 1946 by Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart during a drive to Nashville for an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. King and Stewart had heard Bill Monroe's "Kentucky Waltz" on the radio and were inspired to try their hand at a "Tennessee Waltz." Since the song's first release by Pee Wee King and His Golden West Cowboys in 1948, "Tennessee Waltz" has been recorded over three hundred times in styles as diverse as rhythm and blues, pop, jazz, bolero, rock, and even in a Yiddish parody version.The song enjoyed great popularity outside of the U.S. and one could even find sheet music for the waltz in Japan.
Patti Page’s recording of the song in 1951 was a colossal hit, leading Billboard Magazine to state in a front-page article in its May 19 issue from that year that “Tennessee Waltz” was “possibly the biggest song in the history of the modern pop song business.” The song has since become a favorite of university marching bands, including Middle Tennessee State University’s Band of Blue. “Tennessee Waltz” was adopted as the fourth state song of Tennessee in 1965.
“Rocky Top,” like “Tennessee Waltz,” is a state song that has enjoyed wide popularity outside Tennessee. This bluegrass standard was written in only ten minutes 1967 by the husband/wife songwriting team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant as a diversion from another writing assignment. “Rocky Top” began its journey to extraordinary popularity when Bobby and Sonny Osborne visited the Bryant’s in search of a song to fill out an album they were working on. The Osbornes quickly realized that the new song would work well as a bluegrass tune and recorded it the next day. Their recording was released on Christmas day in 1967 and became an instant hit.
Since its release, “Rocky Top” has been recorded by many artists in many different styles and has also become a popular university fight song. The University of Tennessee's bands, including the "Pride of the Southland” Marching Band, play "Rocky Top" at every Volunteers sporting event.
Many have wondered where “Rocky Top” is in Tennessee. Felice Bryant said that the song does not reference a specific mountain peak, but that there are a number of summits in the state that bear that common name. “Rocky Top” became an official state song in February 1982.
Vivian Rorie’s song was adopted as the official song of the 97th General Assembly in 1992. It became official when House Joint Resolution 744 of the 97th General Assembly was passed. Although "Tennessee" is listed as a state song, technically it is not: it is, rather, the “song of the 97th General Assembly”. Listen to the text of “Tennessee” as read by Johnny Cash.
“The Pride of Tennessee,” written by Fred Congdon, T. Mike Vaughn, and Carol Elliot, is unique among the state songs in that it provides a history lesson about Tennessee. It comments on the eleven famous people featured in Tennessee’s official Bicentennial painting. The painting, created in 1990 by Tennessee artist-in-residence Michael Sloan, depicts Cordell Hull, James K. Polk, Anne Dallas Dudley, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Davy Crockett, Sequoyah, W.C. Handy, Alvin York, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and John Sevier. One of the song’s writers, Fred Congdon, tells how the song was written:
“I was chairman of the Pride of Tennessee Commission and we worked during the state’s Bicentennial to get original size prints of the portrait in prominent places, mostly courthouses in Tennessee. My friend Mike Vaughn, who had the idea for the portrait . . . , commissioned our friend Michael Sloan to paint the final portrait. Mr. Vaughn also came up with the original idea for the state song. Being a songwriter, I took on the task of turning his ideas into a song about the important people in the portrait. After working on it for a while, I was still not completely satisfied with the lyrics. I was introduced to Ms. Carol Elliott who is a prolific songwriter. We spent a morning working on the song and went into a studio where I recorded the demo for the song with accompaniment by famous Nashville guitarist Steve Gibson. The collaboration of myself, Mike Vaughn, and Carol Elliott made the song. I had a group of musicians that I was playing small shows with and we recorded our Pride of Tennessee album. The title song was debuted at the world-famous Station Inn where we were playing on Monday nights at the time. State Representative John Mark Windle liked the song and said that he thought it should be recognized as a state song because of the rich history. It was adopted as a state song in 1996.”
The “Tennessee Bicentennial Rap” was written by poet Joan Hill Hanks of Signal Mountain, Tennessee. Mrs. Hanks had been writing poems since the 1970s and made it a practice to read her work “with a beat.” She stated later that she was “writing rap and didn’t know it.” In 1995 she wrote the poem that became the “Bicentennial Rap” as a fun and interesting way to teach students and citizens about the history of Tennessee. In January of 1996, State Senator David Fowler and State Representative Bill McAfee proposed that the poem should become Tennessee’s official “Bicentennial Rap,” and the work was so adopted later that year.
During Tennessee’s Bicentennial year, Mrs. Hanks performed her poem for school assemblies, on television, and before live audiences. If the occasion warranted, she would change the line about about “smooth whiskey” and replace it with “Rafting waters, swimming pools. Olympic medals. Cool, cool, cool.”
On June 9, 2010, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen signed Senate Joint Resolution 966, adding yet another official state song to the ever growing list. The new addition, “Smoky Mountain Rain,” had been a major, signature hit for singer Ronnie Milsap since the early 1980s. It was written by Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan after being approached by producer Tom Collins to create a song that would honor Milsap’s home region of western North Carolina. Although inspired by the Carolina mountains, the song has come to stand for a region that embraces Tennessee.
John Bean’s gentle tribute to the state,“Tennessee,” is a song that is stylistically quite different from the rest of his work, which could be characterized kindly as being in the jokester/prankster mode. Songwriter Stephen Hunley started the campaign to have “Tennessee” recognized as a state song, and in May of 2011 the State Senate voted to adopt “Tennessee” as the newest official state song. Listen to “Tennessee” performed by John Bean