Advanced Search | Search A!:
Volume 26, Number 9 — September 2018

Ross is key to music and tourism in Bristol

Leah Ross has helped Bristol to develop and promote its heritage as the  Birthplace of Country Music.
Leah Ross has helped Bristol to develop and promote its heritage as the Birthplace of Country Music.

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | April 25, 2018

Leah Ross became involved in the arts while working for Waste Management and Wellmont Health Systems. Both companies were actively involved in the community with FunFest and Autumn Chase, which fueled her passion for events and music.

She was involved with Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion from the beginning as a volunteer and was hired to be the executive director in 2005. With the merger of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance in 2012, she became the executive director for the Birthplace of Country Music Inc. There are three branches under the BCM umbrella: Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and Radio Bristol. The three branches offer many different arts experiences from the festival to concerts to workshops, arts education, summer camp for kids and many other opportunities.

“There were not a lot of opportunities to personally experience the arts when I was growing up. However, I have always had a love for music. I enjoy going to festivals, live music and plays and have made sure that my children had that exposure. I think the exposure to the arts at an early age can open their minds to so many possibilities. I believe the arts in downtown and particularly the work of the Birthplace of Country Music have played a major role in the economic development of downtown Bristol,” she says.

Charlene Baker, BCM marketing specialist, says, “She is more than just the face of the Birthplace of Country Music; she is the heart and soul of the organization. With a growing staff of 18 employees and hundreds of volunteers, BMC has created a music tourism market, based on its authentic music history and culture, where none previously existed. Bristol is now known for its rich music heritage and enjoys a year-round tourism market, thanks to the efforts of Ross and BCM.

“A tenacious ambassador for Bristol and the arts, Ross has earned the reputation for rolling up her sleeves and getting the job done, whatever the task. She can often be found working in the trenches with volunteers, and she is well known for her diplomatic skills and for bringing groups together. Her tireless energy and passion for our region and its music culture has parlayed itself into dogged advocacy for our community and the banner success of BCM. Though Ross has a long history of commendable service, as executive director of BCM she has accomplished more in 18 years than many produce in a lifetime.

“She has been key in the evolution of Bristol’s tourism industry by leading the expansion of a small music festival into an empire that now encompasses a world-class, Smithsonian-affiliated museum and a radio station that delivers BCM’s mission of music to audiences around the world 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Her vision in seeking out Bristol’s potential as a leader in music tourism across two states has helped resuscitate Bristol’s endangered history as the birthplace of country music, the place where the legendary 1927 Bristol Sessions were recorded.”

Ross is often asked when she is going to retire. She has no plans to do so. “My plan for the future is to continue to work and be a part of the Bristol community. I feel blessed to be able to work for an organization that is making a difference in our community economically and at the same time creating pride in our great downtown.

“I am humbled by this recognition. When I look at those being honored, I think to myself, how lucky I am to share this night with those that are so deserving of this recognition. I really am here because of the support I have received from my family and the community.”

Under her leadership the Birthplace of Country Music has received a number of awards from tourism and professional organizations including recently being named by the Virginia Commission for the Arts 50 for 50 Inspiration Award in the category of Exemplary Programs and Pinnacle Events for Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion.

She is married to John Ross. She has two children, Sally Ann Shipley and Marc Ross, and four grandchildren. She was chosen the YWCA Tribute to Women award recipient in the arts in 2011. She serves on the following boards: Virginians for the Arts (secretary), Executive Board of The Crooked Road, Chamber of Commerce and Holston Mountain Artisans. She is a member of Bristol Noon Rotary Club. She has served on review panels for the Tennessee Arts Commission and Virginia Commission for the Arts. When she is not at work, she enjoys family time, watching her grandkids play sports and going to live music events.

“Ross’ tireless work ethic, enthusiasm and an aptitude for establishing strong partnerships are shining examples of how communities can tap into their cultural authenticity and bring people together toward a common goal. The twin cities of Bristol, Virginia-Tennessee are now enjoying a renaissance of music culture largely due to the hard work of Ross and BCM. One of Bristol’s biggest cheerleaders, Ross doesn’t shy away from an opportunity to talk about Bristol’s history. When rocker Steven Tyler visited the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in 2015, she gave him a copy of the 1927 Bristol Sessions box set and told him, ‘I understand you’re getting ready to put out a country album. So you really need to know this history,’

“Leah Ross is an inspiration, and she shows no sign of slowing down. A generous donor offered the property next door to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum to BCM, and she is hard at work making plans for an expansion to the museum in addition to all of her other commitments. She is building a lasting legacy that will carry us well into the future,” Baker says.

THERE'S MORE: Vess’ journey has taken him from crayons to Hollywood