Leah Ross, Executive Director of Birthplace of Country Music (BCM) speaks about her role as an influential woman in the arts.
The BCM accomplishes its mission to, “preserve and promote the rich music heritage of our region and celebrate Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia as the birthplace of country music,” through a museum which hosts several permanent and rotating exhibits. The BCM also provides educational programming to people of all ages, a new radio station, Radio Bristol, and the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion music festival, a 3 day music and arts festival in Bristol, Tennessee with over 140 musicians, 20 stages and 50,000 plus attendees.
How did she get here?
Leah grew up in a small coal mining town in Southwest Virginia where her exposure to the arts was very limited. Her main contact with the arts was her father’s love of bluegrass music. The lack of arts in her childhood did not stop Leah from soaking up as much live music as she could during her life and going on to be the executive director of a successful organization providing arts to the Bristol community.
Leah attributes her rise to the top of such a successful organization to, “having great jobs that allowed me to do work in the community.” During her work with both a waste management company and a health system company, she helped plan events with the goal of bringing the community together to support worthy causes. Her work with these companies inspired her passion for event planning and management.
When the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion Festival was formed, she was brought on as the Chair of the logistics committee. After the fifth festival in 2005, she was asked to take on the role of executive director of the festival. She happily accepted the position because, as she explains, “events thrill my soul. I love the pressure and pace of live events.”
Being an Executive Director
The discussion to merge the then, Birthplace of Country Music Alliance, and the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival occurred about five years ago. Leah explains that the process wasn’t easy, but overall the two organizations felt it was what the community was asking for. Since the merging to create The Birthplace of Country Music, the organization has grown leaps and bounds and has proven very valuable to the community of Bristol.
Leah explains that her role as executive drector can be “challenging to wrap your arms around everything, but it’s very rewarding. You may be working on the festival one minute and then have to change to a different focus about 5 minutes later. We feel like we’re making a difference in our community.” She also says, “it’s all very exciting, just a lot more than it used to be.” This is her dream job.
When asked what a normal day in the life of Leah Ross looks like, she tells me it all depends on the time of year. On a regular day, her schedule is fairly structured. She can be focused on an upcoming event, researching grants the BCM can apply for, cultivating sponsor relationships, or brainstorming ideas for the radio station.
I would say they most definitely have made a difference in the community. Since the creation of BCM, the organization has gone from 4 employees to a total of 21! With the increasingly popular festival, museum, and a new radio station, the BCM only continues to grow within their community. Leah tells me, “the radio station is gaining ground and will become a great avenue for us to tell our story to the world.”
After the opening of the Museum, Bristol was recognized by National Geographic Traveler’s top ten places to visit in the world, and has inspired two boutique hotels to open downtown. This helps the vitality of downtown, and promotes the growth of new businesses. According to Zach Vance’s article, Friday’s Bristol Rhythm & Roots draws thousands Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion Festival has “accumulated $16.1 million for the region.”
Leah also believes the merger has shown the community the importance of arts education and live music. “And not just country music, but all of the roots that have spawned from it.”
I wanted to know what Leah believes to be some of her greatest accomplishments. Being married over 40 years and raising two beautiful children have been her greatest personal accomplishments.
As for her career, she is most proud of the festival, helping build it into what it is today and becoming the Executive Director of BCM. “Helping build something that our community and our region should really be proud of,” Leah says is her greatest joy.
Challenges in the field
Leah does not feel as though her gender has had a factor on her career thus far. “I’ve never been afraid to take on new responsibilities. I think when you show you have that initiative doors open for you that otherwise may not.” However, she does realize that equal pay is still an issue for women today, and she’s not wrong. According to the Pay & Equity Discrimination publication put out by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “in 2015, female full-time workers made only 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gender wage gap of 20 percent.” While obtaining her degree in Business Administration, Leah did her final project on the difference in salaries of men and women.
Running an organization requires a lot of late nights, weekends, and hard work. I was curious as to what Leah did for fun to balance her work-life relationship. She told me she enjoys spending time with her family, quilting, and listening to live music.
Do you know a woman who has influenced the arts? Let us know!