Music/Lyrics: Boudleaux Bryant/Felice Bryant
Vocals: Mike (lead); Trey, Page, Fish (backing)
Original Artist: Osborne Brothers
Historian: Grant Calof
Guaranteed to shoot bolts of blissful energy through Hatfields, McCoys and moonshiners everywhere, “Rocky Top” is always a kick up your heels shotgun blast of bluegrass music whenever it rears its head on a setlist. When Phish debuted the song during the fall of 1987, its lightning quick, blistering pace provided the perfect showcase for the band to push the envelope of yet another, less obvious musical arena… bluegrass. And after four singing cowboys from Vermont had their way with this bluegrass classic, it was never to be the same again. The song is best known by the version performed by the Osborne Brothers, although they sing it four keys higher than Cactus.
Osborne Brothers, "Rocky Top"
With no true formula for success in what's left of the music “business,” most bands spend their careers playing and perfecting just one style of music. But as we all know, Phish isn’t like other bands. Rather than play one type of music, they play every type of music. And they don’t just play it, they redefine, reinvent and repackage it, recreating it as their own. Phish is able to shift in and out of styles (let alone songs) so effortlessly and seamlessly that to the uninitiated eye it might look easy. It’s not surprising to hear straight-ahead rock and roll, lighter than air ballads, earth-shaking hard-core, a country tune and a couple of funk-filled grooves all in one set. Yet what makes it all the more incredible, and one of the main reasons people still trek across the globe to see Phish again and again, is that it’s never the same show twice.
Sameness, however, is the only criticism occasionally leveled at "Rocky Top". Like “Sample” and “Bouncing,” the arrangement of “Rocky Top” has remained the same over the years and it’s for this reason that the song is both loved and loathed by fans. The only aspect of Phish's rendition of “Rocky Top” that really changes is the speed at which it’s played – it's either incredibly fast or obscenely, ridiculously fast (blink, and you just might miss the explosive “Rocky Top” from The Great Went on 8/16/97).
The song was originally penned by the husband and wife songwriting team of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant and reflects on the good old-fashioned simple life of real-life destination, Rocky Top, Tennessee. In 1982 “Rocky Top” was adopted as Tennessee’s state song, and it also happens to be the University of Tennessee Fight Song. Phish has paid homage to the Volunteer State during many of their visits, performing “Rocky Top” – while in Rocky Top – on 2/27/91, 2/18/93, 7/29/93, 6/14/95, 11/6/96, and 11/15/98.
Phish, "Rocky Top"– 7/19/03, East Troy, WI
“Rocky Top” had its heyday in the Phish repertoire in the early 90s, reaching a peak of a whopping forty-two performances in 1991 alone. In the early days it could show up at any given time during either set, though over time its role solidified to that of set-closer or encore. Turning the clock to the new millennium, “Rocky Top” has become a relative rarity, with only four appearances to date: 6/13/00 in Nagoya, Japan; 9/17/00 as the encore at Merriweather; 7/19/03 at Alpine Valley; and at the popular 12/30/09 Miami gig.
Other notable versions include: 12/2/90 with Dave Grippo and Russ Remington; 5/6/93 with Dick Solberg on violin; 5/29/94 as part of a five song double encore at the Laguna Seca Daze Festival; 11/14/95 after the monster second set “Stash;” and as a first set closer on 9/18/99 in Chula Vista, CA.