published Thursday, May 29th, 2014

Federal judge: Tennessee city can change name to Rocky Top

NASHVILLE — A federal judge has given a former coal mining town in East Tennessee the go-ahead to change its name to Rocky Top — a move that developers have said is needed to entice them to build a massive tourist complex in the town of 1,800 people.

The plan is for Lake City to cash in on the fame of the song "Rocky Top," a bluegrass standard that has been recorded over the years by dozens of performers, including Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell, the Osborne Brothers and Lynn Anderson.

But Gatlinburg-based House of Bryant, which owns the rights to the song and multiple Rocky Top trademarks, has sued to stop the plan.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan denied House of Bryant's request to issue a temporary injunction that would prevent the town from moving forward with the name change while the lawsuit works its way through the court system. Varlan ruled that Lake City likely would not infringe on House of Bryant's copyright because the town does not intend to use the name for commercial purposes.

Varlan also denied a request to put the brakes on the developers' plans, saying it was too early to issue an injunction on proposals that may never come to fruition.

"It is unknown to what extent, if at all, the developer defendants have secured the millions of dollars in funding required for their purported plans. Therefore, though we know that '(c)orn won't grow at all on Rocky Top,' it is yet to be determined whether an ambitious, wide-ranging development will," Varlan wrote, quoting from the song.

Varlan noted that the case is unusual. House of Bryant argues that if the town is allowed to change its name, it will open the door up for developers to use the name with impunity because Rocky Top will have become merely a geographic reference.

Currently, there is no actual town of Rocky Top, Tennessee. The lawsuit says the song refers to "a fictional or idyllic place."

The Tennessee State Legislature has given Lake City permission to change its name, but the city council has yet to schedule a vote on the matter.

If the city does change its name in the hopes of attracting tourists, it wouldn't be the first time. Lake City was called Coal Creek until the 1930s when town officials changed the name to capitalize on their proximity to Norris Lake. There is no lake in Lake City.

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