Peggy Ratusz and Paula Hanke are probably among the best-known musical performers in Asheville. Both have played on nearly every stage in town, singing everything from blues to country and pop to jazz, and most everything in between. Friends since 2007, they’ve collaborated before, but the pair’s newest endeavor is perhaps their most ambitious yet. “Love Is a Rose: Celebrating the Music of Torch Singer Linda Ronstadt” is planned as the first in an ongoing project, the Women Who Make Music History Concert Series. The opening “Love Is a Rose” performance is Sunday, Aug. 13, at the Tryon Fine Arts Center.
Ratusz came up with the original Women Who Make Music History concept, designed to spotlight the music of important musical figures. “But we don’t like the word tribute,” she says. We like celebrating, because we don’t copy. We interpret.” Some of the artists Hanke and Ratusz have celebrated in the past — both together and individually — include Billie Holiday, Bonnie Raitt and Etta James.
“We want to get a message out to our younger sisters who might watch the show,” Hanke says. “We want to let them know about these amazing women and what they’ve done; the decisions they made that changed music.”
“We want to inspire them to follow their dreams,” Ratusz says.
But most of the shows Ratusz and Hanke had booked were in smaller venues. And as much as both women enjoy playing locals bars and listening rooms, they wanted to expand their reach. “I don’t want to always be in a bar until 2 in the morning,” Ratusz admits. “I did it for six nights a week for many decades.” She and Hanke believe that a concert in the setting of a performing arts center takes things to a different level for both audience and performer.
Noting that performing arts centers often feature improved sound, lighting and other professional production values, Ratusz says that she believes playing in that kind of room gets the point across more effectively. “We want the subtleties of our voices to be heard,” she says. “And we want the subtleties of our message in each song to be heard, because we tell the story of these women while we’re singing.”
Ratusz and Hanke have already begun the long-term process of promoting the Women Who Make History concept to the network of booking agents who schedule shows at performing arts centers across the country. They’ll be playing at a showcase for agents in September. Like the Tryon concert, the showcase set will feature narrative and audiovisual material in support of the live music.
So, while their continuing plans call for multiple shows in various venues, right now both women are focusing their energies on the upcoming “Love is a Rose” concert. “We have to work on one show at a time,” Ratusz explains, “and we started with this one because it’s timely.” After a long and successful career, Ronstadt was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012; the condition left her unable to sing.
When Ratusz and Hanke attended their first conference of booking agents, they suggested the idea of celebrating Ronstadt’s music. “People kind of lit up when we talked about Linda,” Ratusz says. “They said things like, ‘Oh, great. I love her!’” Ronstadt’s appeal has always extended across multiple styles, from “Different Drum,” her early hit with the Stone Poneys; to her new wave period (1980’s Mad Love); to her albums of torch song standards with conductor Nelson Riddle.
Both women make a point of noting that the summits of performers and booking agents were not at all cutthroat and competitive. “We were really taken by the camaraderie and the networking,” Hanke says. The organization for Hanke and Ratusz’s home region — the North Carolina Consortium – sponsors several “bull chat” meetings each year.
“Everybody’s invited: artists, agents, theater directors,” Hanke says. Workshops focus on topics of interest to all, and there’s a great deal of collaboration. “They work together to help everyone,” Hanke says. But, in the end, performers still have to compete to sell their idea to booking agents.
Hanke and Ratusz have a GoFundMe campaign to help fund their front-end efforts for the Women Who Make History Concert Series. Its goal is $20,000. “For every show, we need a new stage plot,” Ratusz says. Each production also needs a “sizzle reel,” a short video designed to win over those agents. And those things cost money.
The “Love Is a Rose” performance is both the beginning of a new show and the first in a much larger, more ambitious project for Hanke and Ratusz. And they aim to get every detail just right, Hanke says. “The arrangements, the harmonies, the costumes …”
Ratusz finishes her friend’s sentence. “The multimedia, the staging, the lighting. Everything.”
Hanke gets the last word: “We’re out to elevate everything to make the concert series successful.”
WHAT: Love Is a Rose: Celebrating the Music of Torch Singer Linda Ronstadt
WHERE: Tryon Fine Arts Center, 34 Melrose Ave., Tryon, tryonarts.org
WHEN: Sunday, Aug. 13, 7 p.m. $22