I’ll Leave My Heart in Tennessee named as an official state song

Jamie Dailey, Karen Staley, and Darrin Vincent on the Dailey & Vincent television show

Last month I’ll Leave My Heart in Tennessee, written by hit songwriter and singer Karen R Staley, and performed by Dailey & Vincent, was named as an official state song.

The bill, SB1759/HB1731, sponsored by Senator Paul Bailey of Sparta and Representative John Mark Windle of Livingston, was passed without objection. Passage of the bill begins at the 38:15 minute mark in the video below, followed by a performance of the song by Dailey & Vincent with Karen Staley and Ben James.

It is Tennessee’s 11th official state song. Others include Boudleaux and Felice Bryant’s Rocky Top, as recorded by the Osborne Brothers; and Tennessee Waltz, written by Redd Stewart and Pee Wee King.

Staley provided this detailed story behind the writing of I’ll Leave My Heart in Tennessee ….

“I always joke before I perform this song that, ‘When God made me a Yankee He was only Teasin’,’ because I finally felt ‘home’ the minute I drove across the Tennessee State line. No disrespect to where I grew up in Pennsylvania/West Virginia, but it totally resonated with my soul. Even if I wasn’t in the music business, I would have loved living in Tennessee and the South in general.

In 1996 I bought a beautiful horse farm in Franklin, Tennessee (Williamson County), after I got my royalties from the two songs I had with Faith Hill, Take Me As I Am and Let’s Go To Vegas, and joked that I called it ‘Faith Hills’ because that’s who paid for it! I adored it there and there was this massive tree close to the barn where the sun would set every night. As it says in the song, I truly did stop and sing How Great Thou Art many times in thanks of being blessed with such a wonderful property. My parents were going to move down from Pennsylvania to help me care for the place because it was so much work to do with trying to write and perform too. 

Well, my father ended up having a heart attack and stroke which changed the entire plan. I had an album coming out on Warner Bros called Fearless that I had just finished, and was ready to go and promote. Instead, I ended up being the caretaker for my parents, which took me away from being in the music business full time. I ended up selling the farm as there was no way to keep it up and take care of the five horses I had.

So, I sold the farm and horses and moved into the beautiful suburb of Brentwood where I was on only an acre of land. It was great but not me, as I grew up in a rural area and loved the farm. I so missed walking the land.

In 2004, when I wrote the song, the only bucolic land in Brentwood was a 250-acre farm called Green Pastures on the corner of Franklin Road and Concord, owned by the Turner family (Dollar General/etc). They boarded horses there and a friend ended up bequeathing me a gorgeous six-year -old paint mare and said he would pay for its care if I got it ready to ride for his daughter someday. It was a beautiful compromise to living in the suburb yet having a masterpiece of a farm three miles down the road. Everyone there just loved it, and it was a close group of people who boarded there. Many said it was what kept them sane going through divorces or cancer, etc. Horses really are healing creatures…. especially when you don’t have to pay for them! It was such a gift to go out there and ride on the property or just hang out there with the horses and boarders. It was a family.

Well, at one point, developers (‘damn those developers they’re cold and heartless’) got the ear of the Turners and they were going to sell it off to put up what we called McMansions…. the LAST thing Brentwood needed. It went so far as to have a huge sign with the plans and everything. The barn family was of course heartbroken. So, I said, ‘Let’s at least try and see if we can have them save at least part of the property.’ I suggested we put a digital scrapbook together with each boarder having two pages of pictures and what the place meant to them. Underneath I put the song I’ll Leave My Heart In Tennessee. We gave it to the Turners and were told they cried when they watched it. I’m not saying my idea was the only reason they decided to stop the development, but I do think it may have been the catalyst/last straw to validate what a unique place they had.

They helped SO many people PLUS just driving by and looking at the property was uplifting to anyone with eyes! It staved off the development for over 10 years. A few years ago, they decided to stop the boarding business, but the property still remains today. I don’t know what their plans are for it. I worked with a grass roots group called Save The Brentwood Green Space for a while who put up an idea for the city of Brentwood to buy the property, but the citizens took a look at the $50 million price tag and got spooked. I would assume the price NOW would be over $100 million so they lost a deal!”

She went on to relate how she brought the song to the attention of Dailey & Vincent …  

“The song has an even longer history, but never landed where I wanted it to. I kept it as one of my most prized possessions because unlike my hit songs that were merely crafted, I’ll Leave My Heart In Tennessee came from the deepest part of me, and I wanted it to have an equally respectful legacy. I never even DREAMED it could be the Tennessee State song!! But to quote another song of mine Shoulda Dreamed Bigger.

Somewhere around 2012 or 2013 I saw the Dailey & Vincent tour bus sitting at a house at the end of our road. I was a fan but had never met them. We surmised it was Jamie Dailey as I knew Darrin lived in Smithville. So, we made up a nice welcome basket and put a note in it saying, ‘I’m not a stalker but we love your music,’ and I said who I was and what songs I’d had cut. Patty Loveless did a song of mine called Half Over You on her first album, and then again on her bluegrass album, Mountain Soul II, that I figured he may know. Well, he called us, and we became fast friends. We hung out, wrote together, and when they had projects I would also pitch songs. They’ve been kind enough to include at least one of my songs on the last few projects.

It was actually my partner Laurie Larson who said, ‘Karen, Dailey & Vincent are the PERFECT people to record I’ll Leave My Heart In Tennessee.’ I said, ‘You are totally right”.’ And we got real excited. I sent Jamie and Darrin the song and they both agreed immediately that it was a song for them. They played it for a couple years in their shows and then when they did their PBS Alive [concert] they put it on there. The only pause I had was the song originally was unique because it was from the perspective of an outsider, ‘I’m just a loyal immigrant not a native son, but I love this place much as anyone.’ But we decided the song would mean just as much to a native Tennessee and gave the green light for Dailey & Vincent to use it. In fact, they would understand the tone of the second verse where I mourn the progress destroying so much of the heart of Tennessee more than even I did. And remember I wrote this song in 2003. How much do you think I mourn progress now in 2022 when it’s now hard to even recognize the town I love so much?

But they didn’t record it until about a year ago. They used veteran country producer Paul Worley, who ironically gave me my first cut by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on a song called Tennessee. Paul had played guitar on my first demo in town, gave me my first cut, and wanted to produce my first record but back then I was on MCA records and Jimmy Bowen only allowed ‘in house’ producers to cut their projects. (After my neglected first album, Wildest Dreams on MCA, I often wish I would have signed with Warner Bros instead so Paul could have produced me because we had such a great relationship.) But I digress. So, almost 26 years after Paul cutting Tennessee what are the odds of him cutting a song called I’ll Leave My Heart In Tenessee with Dailey & Vincent? A true full circle moment!”

September 2014 [live] Hylton Performing Arts Center, Prince William campus of George Mason University, Manassas, VA – Dailey & Vincent 

I’ll Leave My Heart in Tennessee (Pillar Stone 8226857042532(DVD), Cracker Barrel 896520)

Staley credits the politicians for the song’s new elevated status …. 

“Jamie and Darrin had known Republican Senator Paul Bailey (Sparta), and Democratic Representative John Mark Windle, for a while as they were both Dailey & Vincent fans who had seen them perform many times. So, it was their idea. Along the journey Republican Representative Terri Lynn Weaver also jumped onboard as she had recorded one of my songs back in the day called Face To Face on one of her Christian albums. I had no idea until I met her in the Capitol building the day we performed for them. SO many cool little ‘God winks’ as I call them!”

She concludes …. 

“I have had both a hard life, but a truly blessed life. All of those emotions are captured in I’ll Leave My Heart In Tennessee, and I give every single ounce of glory to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for all of those lessons and blessings. I didn’t think anything could top my short cameo in the 2019 documentary, Bluebird – The Movie, as the Bluebird Cafe had been the Station Inn of my career where I cut my teeth (and of course debuted, and played I’ll Leave My Heart In Tennessee so many times over the past 19 years).  

After such difficult business years because of COVID, and the general slow extinction of the professional songwriter industry period, to have such a wonderful surprise and unique gift/honor bestowed upon a song that means SO much to me is truly just surreal. I cannot thank everyone involved enough!!”

Jamie Dailey offered his perspective …. 

“Karen Staley created a gem when she wrote this song.

In 2013 she dropped a CD off at my house. When I listened to it, I’ll Leave My Heart In Tennessee was the song I heard. I could plainly see my life the way, well I have lived it in Tennessee with every lyric she had written. I was smitten with it and knew I had to sing it.

We rehearsed and learned it and as we travelled around America night after night singing this song we could feel and hear the response of the crowd and we knew we had a great song on our hands. 

So, let’s fast forward to this past month. We were invited by Senator Paul Bailey and House Representatives John Mark Windle and Terry Lynn Weaver and the legislature to come sing this song on the floor of the State Capitol. Never in a million years would I have ever thought they would have voted it unanimously to make it a new official Tennessee State song. As we stood before our state legislature singing this song, I could feel my love for Tennessee more than in my marrow and blood. The beautiful rivers and creeks, the color people and the white church steeples is exactly how I grew up, for it is certainly part of who I am. 

I would like to extend a huge thank you to Brandi Foust, who helped coordinate all of this for us and the state. She’s an incredible person. To Karen Staley, Jenee Fleenor, Ben James and Paul Worley; thank you for picking and singing with Darrin Vincent and me on this special and historic occasion. 

To our sponsor Gus Arrendale of Springer Mountain Farms Chicken and Dan Rogers Executive Coordinator at the Grand Ole Opry we appreciate you all being with us. 

As I sit here gazing across these beautiful hills and the Cumberland River in Gainesboro, I believe I can speak on behalf of most of my fellow Jackson countians when I say that this song tells our story. 

So, with that being said, I’ll leave my heart in Tennessee. 

God bless all of you and thank you!”

Share this:

About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.