A! Magazine for the Arts

Rhythm & Roots, BCMA Talk Partnership

November 2, 2010

***Published in the Bristol Herald Courier on Tuesday, Nov. 2. ***

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Two of the Twin City's most recognizable music promoters will join forces, hoping the success of one will finally bring a long-discussed project to life.

At a Monday meeting, the Rhythm & Roots Reunion music festival's board of directors voted to collaborate with the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance – even though organizational specifics haven't been worked out.

The festival board agreed to establish a joint task force to develop an operating model, but emphasized this wouldn't be a merger. The task force is to develop an organizational and operational model, which must be approved by the full board of each organization.

The ultimate goal, committee member Jim Tench said, is to help the BCMA secure the funding to establish and operate its long-discussed cultural heritage center.

"We will continue to do exactly what we're doing and BCMA will continue to operate. We think it would create an umbrella [organization] that contains our executive director and staff to run both," Tench said.

Festival officials have extensively studied the request – which came from the BCMA earlier this year. The festival's executive committee recommended the change following recent meetings with their alliance counterparts, Tench said.

Since 2005, alliance officials have been working to raise $10.5 million to establish a heritage center in a vacant Cumberland Street building. To date, they have raised about $6.7 million, including a $2.5 million loan through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and about $2 million in grants from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission.

A commission grant is funding exterior work currently under way at the proposed center site.

"If I put on my City Council hat or my Bristolian hat, I hope for a collaboration between the two organizations," Bristol, Tenn., Vice Mayor David Shumaker said. "But if I put on my Rhythm & Roots hat, I have watched them [BCMA] get knocked down, get up, fall down and dilly dally around trying to build that cultural heritage center. I don't believe it will happen now without us [festival] – but this is not going to be good for us for the next year or so, as we drag their stinking carcasses around."

Tench said alliance officials approached the festival because they need someone to replace former Executive Director Bill Hartley, who was dismissed in March because the organization said it couldn't pay his salary.

"They need leadership. This lady right here," Tench said pointing toward festival Executive Director Leah Ross, "is a tenacious bulldog. They need that and they won't get that without Rhythm & Roots."

Having a paid executive director in place would also allow the alliance to qualify for grant monies not available in their current condition, Ross said.

Shumaker and board members Ed Harlow, Vicie Dotson and Larry Gorley were among those asking how new staff positions would be funded, how the organization would operate and how additional responsibilities could damage the annual music festival, which featured record attendance of 45,000 in September – a 38 percent increase over 2009.

In the end, all received some answers and essentially agreed to review whatever the task force creates.

Harlow said he would support the collaboration because the center would help the city where he serves as vice mayor.

There is no time limit and either side can withdraw at any time, Ross said.

"This is scary for me, but I really believe in the project and I believe in the organization. I think together we can become stronger. The key is staffing. It will be a challenge for both organizations next year," Ross said.

Besides its executive director, the festival pays one part-time marketing person and a part-time receptionist. As an independent nonprofit entity, Rhythm & Roots receives a mixture of corporate, private and public funding to conduct an annual three-day festival in downtown Bristol while promoting other regional concerts.

Created in 1994, the nonprofit alliance has promoted the Twin City's musical heritage through a series of local and regional concerts while once serving as a presenter at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington. It has only one employee.