Twenty miles north of Knoxville, Tennessee, the little town of Lake City is changing its name to Rocky Top. Bluegrass fans know “Rocky Top, Tennessee” as an iconic Bluegrass song covered by Buck Owens, Dolly Parton, and, most recently, Phish. It is about a man living in the big city who pines for his idyllic hometown in the Tennessee hills. Lake City’s name change was vehemently opposed by House of Bryant publications, which owns rights to the song, and sought an injunction to block the name change. As reported by Reuters and ABC News, the town prevailed in federal court and will now go ahead with the name change. But bucolic allusions aside, the name change to Rocky Top is for commercial reasons. The hope is that the name will draw Dollywood-bound tourists to the soon-to-be-renamed little town of 1,800, where a new IMAX theatre, laser tag facility and amusement park promotions are being planned.
Lake City, Tennessee is not the first locality to select a name for marketing purposes. Santa Claus, Georgia; Paradise, Florida; and Cool, California are just three examples of town names selected to attract tourist attention. And there’s a long tradition of selecting place names with an eye toward marketing. A thousand years ago, Erik the Red named a barely-inhabitable sheet of ice “Greenland” in hopes that the name would entice settlers. (It worked.) In the recent court case, the attorneys for House of Bryant warned that if Lake City prevails, it is only a matter of time before dozens of cash-strapped localities embark down the same path. There’s a crass logic to this: It is easy imagine Detroit, for example, officially changing its name to Motown and featuring a series of Motown-themed venues to bring in tourists and rebrand the downtrodden city. But there’s a looming ick-factor to all of this. Are we a better country when next year’s fashionable shoppers fly out to buy their dresses from the newly trendy boutiques of Kardashian, California?