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Leah Ross: 'I love this job. It's my dream job'

July 05, 2011

Have you seen this article by David Mcgee — Bristol Herald Courier — Published: July 03, 2011? BRISTOL — Editor’s Note: Although women make up nearly half of the work force, across the nation fewer than 20 percent hold executive positions. Yet, in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee in recent years, women have ascended to positions of power in every facet of life, from government, education and politics to business, the arts and health care. In the coming days and weeks, the Bristol Herald Courier will spotlight some of the region’s most successful women – energetic, hardworking, savvy decision-makers who are filling a number of leadership roles in our communities.

Coming Monday: Washington County, Va., Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dulcie Mumpower

One in a continuing series

Leah Ross

Executive director, Rhythm & Roots Reunion
Age: 59
Favorite Quote: “Hard work never killed anyone.”
Born: Lebanon, Va.
Lives: Blountville, Tenn.
Favorite traits: Passion for her job, multitasking, enthusiasm
Boards served: Chairwoman, Bristol Convention and Visitors Bureau board; member of Bristol Chamber of Commerce executive board and board of directors; Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association; Southeast Festival and Events Association; Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Commission marketing committee; Virginia Commission for the Arts advisory council

The musical lineup on Leah Ross’ iPod doesn’t disappoint.

From Americana artists The Black Lillies and Eilen Jewell to bluegrass star Doyle Lawson – with a bit of opera and Lady Gaga thrown in for good measure – her taste in tunes reflects a diversity that has become the hallmark of the music festival she manages.

A ground-floor volunteer for Bristol’s Rhythm & Roots Reunion before the first chord was struck in 2001, Ross became executive director six years ago and has helped turn the once-quaint community event into a bona fide musical happening that attracted 45,000 last year.

“It’s not about me,” Ross said. “People sometimes tell me I’m why Rhythm & Roots is where it is today. I’d like to think I’m that leader behind it, but there’s a heck of lot more people than just me that’s brought it to where it is. If I didn’t have that support from my board, from both cities and our sponsors and volunteers, we wouldn’t be where we are. I’m just a really small piece of that pie.”

Regardless of how much credit she accepts, Ross has been at the helm of a weekend event that has tripled its attendance, books some world-class talent and attracts music fans from across the U.S. and numerous foreign countries.

Like the festival, which runs Sept. 16-18 this year, her role has grown exponentially.

“I do all the contracts for our artists, negotiate with the agents, do the majority of our fundraising, sponsorships, building relationships with our sponsors, all the grant-writing, manage the employees – or they manage me. I report to a board and I serve on different boards in our community,” Ross said.

And effective immediately, she is wearing yet another hat – that of executive director of the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance. The two nonprofit music promotional groups are working to determine how best to work together and one of their first decisions was to name Ross top executive.

“Both boards are in the process of drafting all the paperwork and we’re looking at a parent company that would be called the Birthplace of Country Music – but the festival and the alliance wouldn’t really change. It would be business as usual,” Ross said.

The alliance has divided its efforts between promoting music events, education and raising money to establish a cultural heritage center downtown.

The transition should be completed within the next few weeks, Ross said.

Her new role is a natural progression, according to Edd Hill, immediate past president of the alliance board of directors and architect of the two groups working more closely together.

“She brings such energy,” Hill said. “She loves music and she loves this community. She has such a passion for it. And I think having a true CEO will really help BCMA.”

Originally a volunteer in charge of logistics for the 2001 event, Ross stepped up to co-chair that first festival when the former chairman resigned four months before the event. It was love at first sight.

“The second year, I was the chair of the festival and then I went back to being the logistics chair until they were smart enough to hire me,” Ross joked. “A few years back, we had a year that was really challenging. Come festival time, there were a lot of things that weren’t taken care of. Some things happened and I took care of some problems and – on that Sunday of the festival – I talked to the board and told them I really wanted to work here full-time.”

In the years since, neither the festival nor Ross has looked back.

“I’m 59 years old. I’ve been in this job six years and I’ve been working since I got out of college and it took me 34 years to get my dream job. People ask me if I want to retire and I say, ‘Hell no I don’t want to retire. Now I’ve got a job I like,” Ross said. “I’ve enjoyed almost every job I’ve ever had, but I love this job. It’s my dream job.”

With the festival less than three months away, Ross typically arrives at work before 7 a.m., and often attends events on nights and weekends to promote it. Despite having to oversee hundreds of details that will come together during the next few weeks, she thrives on the pace and the pressure.

“My biggest passion is working on an event, seeing it come together and knowing you’ve given something to the community they can be proud of,” Ross said. “Here we are three months out and there’s so much hype about it. We just got our shirts in and everything is starting to tick. It’s such a big high to get to that point and through that weekend. And when it’s over, I don’t want it to be over. Every year, after the festival, it’s sort of like a death for about a month.”

Much of her pre-festival career was spent working for Waste Management, where she advanced from dispatcher and office worker to sales manager. She left for a time to serve as property manager for Wellmont Health System, but returned to Waste Management for three years as sales manager before moving to the festival full-time.

“I took a significant cut in pay to take this job, but this is what I love to do and I believe in the mission of promoting our cities and promoting Bristol as the birthplace of country music,” Ross said.

The success of Rhythm & Roots has attracted the attention of other festivals and organizations, which have made Ross a regular presenter. The key, she says, is believing in the product.

“I go to conferences and people who are struggling with events ask me all the time, how do we get the city to do all they do for us? I think you could go across the country and not find two cities more committed to their community. Not just the city leaders, but the employees. They’ve taken ownership. I think our festival has grown because our community has taken ownership of it,” Ross said.

Saying she isn’t afraid to share ideas with others, Ross often advises other festivals because cross-promotion can make every event stronger.

“I believe in partnering. I believe in teamwork and talking positive about everything going on in our community,” she said.

With that involvement, Ross recognizes that her husband, John, and children, Sally and Mark, often cope with her absence.

“I think my family has sacrificed because there were a lot of times I wasn’t there to cook supper or I’m out on Saturday doing this,” Ross said. “I guess I’ve sacrificed but I don’t have a guilt about it. I feel like when I’m with my family, I give them my attention. I’m very fortunate because my husband has learned it’s OK to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for supper or a bag of popcorn because I’m not going to be home.”

A long-time community volunteer, Ross also was involved in the former Autumn Chase and Race Fest events in the 1990s. Bristol went through several versions of a fall festival but none clicked until the city decided to celebrate and capitalize on its unique musical heritage with R&R.

One of her greatest accomplishments is seeing both her adult children volunteering their time for their community.

Away from work, Ross enjoys spending time with her family and extended family.

“Two things thrill me every day: my grandchildren and my job,” she said.

As for hobbies, she enjoys, but admits she spends too little time, making quilts.

“My husband bought me a long-arm quilting machine that I haven’t learned,” Ross said. “My goal this winter is to learn it. My granddaughter will soon be 4 years old and her newborn quilt is still on the machine.”

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