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Deep roots in East Tennessee: Homegrown country artists bolster Vol athletics

Attending her first Tennessee football game in thirty years, beloved country artist Dolly Parton supported the Vols in performing “Rocky Top” on the field for fans.

Former Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning escorted Parton onto the field for her performance, and although there were technical difficulties with her microphone, Vol fans were thrilled to see her.

“The Kansas City Chiefs can have Taylor Swift all they want,” head baseball coach Tony Vitello said at a press conference prior to the game. “We’ll take Dolly Parton.”

Although the Vols lost 38-10 against the No. 1 ranked Georgia Bulldogs, the support and presence of Parton kept fans’ spirits high. Parton, an East Tennessee native, has supported UT Athletics and the University of Tennessee for decades.

“She is the icon, not just an icon,” Vitello said in an interview. “She has done as much as anyone for [country music], but also for the state of Tennessee, you could argue she’s done as much as anyone.”

Vitello, who played baseball at the University of Missouri and held various NCAA coaching positions before landing the Tennessee head coaching role in 2018, believes Parton’s support goes much deeper than just a live version of “Rocky Top”.

“It really embodies what I’ve experienced here, I’m an outsider, but…there’s a lot of loyalty, there’s a lot of giveback, and what you get in return is undying love and support and passion from people that are normally called fans,” Vitello said.

As of September, Dolly Parton also partnered with UT Athletics to create an exclusive edition of her new album Rockstar, which features a live version of “Rocky Top”.” In addition, gameday apparel company LivyLu launched a co-branded merchandise collection featuring Dolly-themed Vols apparel.

“I think it betters us,” Vitello said. “As competitive of an environment as we’re in right now in the [Southeastern Conference] but really across the country, you have to constantly be moving forward or you’re going to get left behind.”

“It helps in that area, but it also differentiates us,” he said.

Parton’s advocacy for the Vols also helps garner more support from older crowds of country music fans who may not be as involved in sports, according to assistant director of football sports performance Anthony Kincy.

“With athletics, usually it is not hard to get a lot of the younger crowd involved, the ones that are college-age students. But now, you throw in Dolly Parton, and their parents [are now involved],” Kincy said in an interview. “A lot of the parents were fired up. I talked to a couple of parents that were at the game and…they were more excited about Dolly Parton than their son playing.”

Dolly Parton isn’t the only country music star advocating for the Vols.

Morgan Wallen, another music sensation and East Tennessee native, has released a series of songs in support of UT, titled “Tennessee Fan” and “Had Me By Halftime”.

Wallen, who grew up a baseball player in the East Tennessee area, has ties to Tennessee athletics and specifically Tennessee baseball. According to Vitello, Wallen regularly attends baseball games to support the Vols.

“As famous as [Wallen] is, he likes just hanging out with his crew and his family, and he likes maintaining a low-profile, and he’s probably been to more baseball games than people realize,” Vitello said. “He was also a really good baseball player himself, so there’s a tie to the sport.”

Wallen also attended the Tennessee versus Alabama football game in fall of 2022, a game which ended with the first Vol win over the Crimson Tide since 2006. After the game, Wallen was seen celebrating the win and performing live in Peyton Manning’s Saloon 16 bar.

“It’s great,” Vol kicker Josh Turbyville said in an interview. “Like [the win] was already an amazing experience, but adding [Wallen] along to that just took it to a whole other level, and I feel like that’s something that you can only really experience here.”

Knoxville’s proximity to Nashville, the country music capital of the world, makes it a hub for all kinds of country music publicity.

Tennessee football has also immensely benefited from the support from country music stars, sources close to the football team say.

Anthony Kincy, assistant football sports performance director, highlighted how unique the Knoxville experience is and how it constantly benefits football recruiting.

“I’ve been here for three years now, and it seems like every year I’ve been here there’s some famous country singer on Rocky Top,” Kincy said. “That’s huge, and from a recruiting aspect, it’s like, man, you have these famous people that are right on the sideline during the games, so that’s cool.”

Tennessee football has been on the rise since the hiring of head coach Josh Heupel in 2021. The Vols finished this season with eight wins and four losses, which compared to last year’s eleven and two record, signals that the team is in a rebuilding era.

This past week, the Southeastern Conference released data showing that Tennessee led the conference in overall home attendance this fall at 713,405 attendees. Tennessee ranks third in the nation this season in total attendance records, falling behind only Michigan and Penn State.

“I think it was both,” Turbyville joked as to whether it was Parton, or the game at large, that filled Neyland. “I think there were people there just for Dolly and people there for the game.”

(This story was co-produced with students from the University of Tennessee's Department of Journalism and Media.)