Birthplace of Country Music Alliance
Moving Downtown & Going Global
By Angela Wampler | April 25, 2007The leaders of the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance (BCMA) in Bristol, TN/VA — executive director Bill Hartley and board president Fred McClellan — have big ideas and a keen eye for details — and they know how to get things done. Their ability to deliver results is taking the BCMA to new levels in both the surrounding community and worldwide
The two most visible areas of growth for the organization are the BCMA website and the proposed Cultural Heritage Center. Hartley says the BCMA website, www.BirthplaceofCountryMusic.org, is "our best asset. Three years ago, the site had one million visitors, 1.4 million last year, and we're on course to have 2 million visitors this year. That's good news."
He continues, "This is stretching our software, but it's making us more attentive to website attendance. We're definitely pushing the envelope. So we are currently redesigning the site to offer more functionality — blogs and podcasts, the kinds of things people expect on a sophisticated, but simple site, to make it run better, more user-friendly, and more interactive."
The first spike in visitors to the website pointed directly to the BCMA participation in the 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., which exposed millions of people to our region's musical traditions. Afterward, they needed a resource to listen to and learn more about the artists who carry on those traditions.
Concerned that the increase in website visitors might not be maintained, the BCMA board directed Hartley to manage the site as a resource for musical history and current events.
McClellan says, "We have continued to increase the number of visitors to our site for the past three years, seeing spikes each time we partner with another organization."
The numbers went up when the BCMA became an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. They went up again when the BCMA collaborated with Mountain Stage, Virginia's Department of Tourism, and The Crooked Road: Virginia's Music Heritage Trail, to tape shows at the Paramount Center for the Performing Arts in Bristol.
McClellan adds, "We also are expanding our services on-line, from our Streaming Audio component — offering hard-to-find music 24 hours a day — to e-commerce. We want to be a destination point for listeners of music."
Regarding e-commerce, Hartley says, "We can't compete with Wal-Mart or Amazon.com, so we're looking at what products sell and what relationships we already have. For example, as a Smithsonian affiliate, we can offer Folkway CDs that you won't find in other places. It only makes sense to highlight the relationships we have with other organizations."
In September 2005, the BCMA unveiled its conceptual plan for a Cultural Heritage Center museum.
McClellan says, "While we continue to develop our new facility, we are taking advantage of opportunities to increase visibility for our region and its musical legacy. The goal is to get people downtown before we finish the building."
Hartley adds, "Moving our offices downtown has already produced a number of partnerships which we hope to continue. The BCMA has participated with the Bristol Public Library, the Paramount Center for the Performing Arts, and the Bristol YWCA to produce programming and activities for the community. One of the best ways for us to keep our level of programming up is to work with others. For projects to be successful, we have to reach out to the community."
80th Anniversary of The Bristol Sessions
Assisted by a $5,000 grant from the Virginia Tourism Corporation, the BCMA, the Bristol Convention and Visitors Bureau, Rhythm and Roots, and Believe in Bristol's Main Street program will work together during 2007 to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the historic Bristol Sessions. Their job: to encourage visitors to the area by drawing attention to the recurring events and activities in downtown Bristol.
"The demographics for this market match up well to the visitor profile for Bristol and the general heritage tourist," explains Hartley, adding that these travelers are interested in an authentic experience and tend to stay longer and spend more in a community.
Hartley says, "Our goal is to make residents and visitors aware of Bristol's unique living musical heritage and encourage them to experience this legacy firsthand. Five years ago, when we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Bristol Sessions, we created events. This time all we have to do is focus on events that are already here. We're very fortunate in this community to still have music being played at downtown venues such as the Country Music Mural, jam sessions at the Star Barber Shop, and at a major festival like Rhythm and Roots."
He continues, "We are also working more closely with others downtown to help provide live music," noting that this includes working with the Rhythm and Roots Reunion on monthly concerts and partnering with Believe in Bristol to assist in the monthly Border Bash series.
In addition to a marketing campaign, the BCMA will conduct a year-long organizational awareness drive to educate the region, the nation and the world about the importance of the Bristol Sessions.
Every little bit helps. During the interview with A! Magazine for the Arts, McClellan related a story told him by Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser. When Fiona Ritchie, host of "The Thistle & Shamrock" on National Public Radio, asked Fraser where in the world could someone learn traditional Scottish fiddling today, Fraser told her there were only two places: Cape Breton in Halifax and Appalachia.
McClellan says, "It's important for the community to have a sense of ownership in our legacy. At the end of the day, it's not about an individual, it's about Bristol and about the region. People need to take ownership and be proud of their heritage." Examples he cited included the Blue Stocking Club concert featuring country music star Rhonda Vincent; the McLain Family Band joining the Symphony of the Mountains for a performance entitled "Fiddlin' Violins: The Sounds of Our Roots;" and Barter Theatre presenting an annual Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights, which has produced plays based on this region's musical heritage.
Cultural Heritage Center
According to an economic impact study produced by the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center, over a five-year period, the new Birthplace of Country Music Cultural Heritage Center will, at a minimum, have an economic impact of more than $43,232,806 to the region and generate $1,041,253 in direct tax revenue that will flow into local and state coffers.
Lisa Meadows, President and CEO of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, commented on the impact the new museum will have on Bristol: "It is very rare that an economic development project of this magnitude not only will have a tremendous impact on the economy and create jobs within the region, but this will also help to preserve the history, heritage, and quality of life in Bristol. In addition, this project will bring thousands of additional, new people to downtown — having the potential to be a catalyst of further development, including hotels, A convention center, retail, entertainment, additional loft living, and other activities in the heart of Bristol's historic downtown."
Wayne Estes, vice president of communications and events at Bristol Motor Speedway, said, "Motorsports events draw large numbers of people here on a few weeks each year. Our music attractions — like our outdoors activities, youth sports, and antique shopping — draw steady numbers of visitors and their tourist dollars to Bristol throughout the year."
Looking to the Future
With enthusiasm, McClellan insists that these are exciting times for the BCMA, the cities of Bristol, and our heritage. "I look forward to broadening the base of support and spreading the opportunity to extend ownership of our mission throughout our community," he says.
Hartley concludes, "What started out as a club became an organization; then it became an institution. Each time you make a change, you almost have to re-invent yourself in the process — without losing sight of your mission. We must focus on our mission as we grow to the next level of our existence, with both our physical and our virtual presence.
BCMA board president Fred McClellan is one of the leaders taking the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance to new levels worldwide.
Fred McClellan with the late Janette Carter.
Bill Hartley, right, showed architectural drawings of the Cultural Heritage Center to former Virginia Governor Mark Warner when Warner visited Bristol to promote "The Crooked Road."