Knoxville is well-known for its music artists, but it’s a little lesser known how many great songwriters got their starts in the city. Knoxville is a particularly appropriate stop for the upcoming Tennessee Songwriter Week competition (February 22 at 7PM, Knoxville Visitor Center WDVX stage – Tickets go on sale February 8). Some of Knoxville’s songwriters are known as performers as well, but all made their mark as writers whose songs have been recorded or performed by others. Here’s a few that may surprise you.

Harry McClintock

Harry McClintock image is depicted on a mural in downtown Knoxville

Harry “Mac” McClintock (born in 1882) quite literally ran away from Knoxville to join the circus before he wrote his most famous song, “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Through the years, he worked in Africa, in China during the Boxer Rebellion and helped organize labor unions as part of the International Workers of the World, sometimes called “The Wobblies.” Aside from writing other favorites, including “The Old Chisholm Trail” and “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” he also befriended now-legendary pulp novelist Jim Thompson, who paid tribute to McClintock by basing the character “Strawlegs Martin” on him.

Florence Reece

Florence Reece during her 85th birthday celebration at the Highlander Research and Education Center in Knoxville, Tenn.​

Not a lot of people know the name Florence Reece, but you’ve certainly heard her song “Which Side Are You On?” The song was first sung by coal miners trying to organize in Harlan County, Ky., in the 1930s. Born in Sharp’s Chapel in Union County, just north of Knox County, Reece spent her later years in Knoxville.

Guy Carawan, who moved to Knoxville in 1959 to work at the Highlander Center didn’t exactly write “We Shall Overcome.” The song went through several adaptations, including one by Carawan’s friend Pete Seeger, but it was Carawan’s version that became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Arthur Q. Smith
Arthur Q. Smith, Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound/James Pritchett Family

In country music, Knoxville’s most prolific songwriter was James Pritchett, better known as Arthur Q. Smith*. Smith sold most of his songs outright for $15 to $25, including “Wedding Bells,” which was recorded by Hank Williams, as well as the hits “If Teardrops Were Pennies,” “I Overlooked an Orchid (While Looking for a Rose),” “Rainbow at Midnight,” “Missing In Action” and “I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could.” The Bear Family Records release “Arthur Q. Smith: The Trouble with the Truth” (co-authored by Bradley Reeves and myself) helped bring Smith’s contributions to light with documentation of his authorship.

Not long after Smith’s run as a hit songwriter, Knoxville songwriter Penny Jay wrote Carl and Pearl Butler’s 1962 No. 1 country hit “Don’t Let Me Cross Over.” The song has since been recorded by Jim Reeves, The Kendalls, Dolly Parton, Deborah Allen and was a hit in 1969 by Jerry Lee Lewis and his sister Linda Gail Lewis.

L.E. White grew up in the Blaine community and authored (often co-authored with Lola Jean Dillon) many country favorites for Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, including “After the Fire Is Gone,” “I Love You More Today,” “To See My Angel Cry” and “I’m Not Through Loving You Yet.” Perhaps even more unforgettable, though, is his song “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.”

Dean Dillon

Dean Dillon, who grew up in Lake City and performed on “Jim Clayton’s Star Time” on Knoxville television, struck it out for Nashville in 1973. He partnered with fellow hard-partying country singer Gary Stewart in the early ‘80s but hit pay dirt when he co-wrote the song “Tennessee Whiskey,” which became a signature song for George Jones (and more recently for Chris Stapleton). He followed by writing many of George Strait’s biggest hits, including “The Chair,” “Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her,” “Ocean Front Property” and “Unwound.”

Kim Williams, who was a member of the Knoxville Songwriters Association, wrote or co-wrote many of Garth Brooks’ hits, including “Papa Loved Mama,” “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)” and “She’s Gonna Make It,” along with many favorites by other artists. Maybe Williams’ most beloved song, though, was a hit for Randy Travis in 2003, “Three Wooden Crosses.”

Dolly Parton

And, of course, while she’s a superstar as music performer, an actress, humanitarian, and just an inspirational celebrity, Dolly Parton’s most lasting contribution to world may be simply as a songwriter. Had she written no more than “I Will Always Love You,” “Jolene” or “Coat of Many Colors,” she’d still be a legend.

Everly Brothers

The Everly Brothers*, were pivotal artists in the birth or rock and roll. The two appeared on Knoxville radio station WROL while attending West High School. The act actually had a first break by way of songwriting when Don Everly’s song “Thou Shalt Not Steal” became a hit for Kitty Wells in 1955 -- the same year that Don graduated from West High. The Brothers’ biggest hit, “Cathy’s Clown,” by the way, was reportedly written about one of Don’s West High girlfriends. It’s notable that The Beatles were such fans of the Everly Brothers that they based many of their harmony vocals on the Everlys’ style and, at one point, considered calling themselves the “Foreverlys” in tribute to the group.

{For more on the Everlys, Art Garfunkel, and their connection to Knoxville, read this VK Blog post}

The future members of the Amazing Rhythm Aces haunted Cumberland Avenue and the University of Tennessee during the early 1970s. Lead singer-songwriter Russell Smith wrote his now classic hit “Third Rate Romance” after being inspired by watching a romantic rendezvous at the original Ruby Tuesday restaurant. A crossover hit in 1975, the song is now almost considered a standard and was re-recorded by Sammy Kershaw, who had a hit with it almost 20 years later.

Dave Barnes
Dave Barnes, Rhythm N' Blooms

Dave Barnes, a star in his own right, graduated from Farragut High, before seeking fame in Nashville. His song “God Gave Me You,” which became a hit for Blake Shelton, eclipsed Barnes’ performing success.

A few Knoxville songwriters also made a dent in the rhythm and blues world. While his younger brother Brownie McGhee became more famous as a guitarist and singer, Granville “Sticks” McGhee,  born in Knoxville and a regular performer here, was best known for writing the song “Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” which was recorded by Lionel Hampton, Wynonie Harris, Big John Greer, Johnny Burnette, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Electric Flag and many others. Like Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” the song began with lyrics that were definitely not radio friendly but were sanitized for general consumption.

Former WNOX disc jockey Rob Galbraith moved to Nashville and fell into the rare category of white writers whose music was most often recorded by soul and R&B acts. Galbraith’s songs were recorded by Clifford Curry (a longtime Knoxville friend), Latimore, Sylvester, Ronnie Milsap and many others. His often-recorded “Damn It All” (sometimes known as “Movin’ In the Same Circles”) is probably his best-known song.

There are plenty of other great songwriters living in Knoxville now, including R.B. Morris, whose songs have been recorded by John Prine, Marianne Faithfull, Webb Wilder and others. In fact, take a listen to some of the songs coming from Knoxville right now and you’ll recognize we’re in a golden age. I can’t wait to hear what comes next.

Learn more about these artists and many more on the Cradle of Country Music Walking Tour.