By Rachel Winner
Creative people are drawn to Asheville.
That’s one reason the city has been called a vortex; a sacred space for creativity and spirituality. This observation may be an inexplicable, yet undeniable truth, or it may be utter baloney. The fact remains: Western North Carolina is a wellspring of artistic ingenuity. As evidence, we’re profiling 12 outstanding female artists who call the WNC region home.
Some are emergent talents in the music and dance industries, others are established and eminent in their fields. As talented as they are, this selection is merely a small sampling of the depth of talent found in the WNC area, and our list is far from a comprehensive catalog of notable artists and performers in the area. And that’s exactly the point. When you’re in the WNC region, the person in line behind you at the gas station might be a jazz performer who regularly rubs elbows with some of the world’s greatest musicians, a legend in the modern burlesque field or an up-and-coming musician on her way to stardom.
The Lady with the Lyrics: Leeda “Lyric” Jones
Three words: Singer; Funk; Legend
Her recipe for jam: The resonant voice of Lyric herself; a little bit of spoken word; uppity backbeat of the bongos, a bit o’ bass and acoustic rhythm. Lyric is both the name of the Jones’ band, and the stage name of it’s frontwoman. The pop/funk/soul band can cover George Clinton’s funk and Tracy Chapman’s twang while adding their own unique flair.
But they’re hardly a cover band, and at the heart of their music are some outstanding original tunes. Jones and her band started out as street performers, and have crescendoed into hot tickets at local festivals like Goombay and Bele Chere. They even opened for Grammy winners like Lizz Wright (another local siren featured in this guide). Even the most reticent wallflowers will notice their hips swinging when this self-proclaimed legend hits the stage. “Forget being signed. Paper fades. Legends don’t. I was born one.” She does what she does “to inspire, influence and changes lives through the power of music and Lyric(s).”
Creating the Carols: Carol Rifkin
Three words: Jamboree; Clogger; Icon
Her recipe for jam: Carol Rifkin is the lead singer of Paul’s Creek, strumming up old-timey, vintage bluegrass, early country tunes and originals. Her band has shared mountain stories and songs in nearly every hill and holler in the region. Rifkin’s is the voice that soars above the band’s guitar, banjo, fiddle, upright bass, Dobro, harmonica and stomping feet.
But she’s got moves to back those words, too. She’s a member of the world-class Green Grass Cloggers and has performed at the Smithsonian, MerleFest (where she’ll be a host at this year’s festival) and Philadelphia Folk Festivals. For you mountain music junkies, she’s performed with Tommy Jarrell, Bill Monroe and Merle and David Holt.
Where you can find her: In addition to her performance accomplishments, Carol is a co-founder, and assist-directed the Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF) for a decade; she is a published journalist for the Asheville Citizen-Times and Acoustic Guitar Magazine. Currently, she is working on a film project on the Stony Creek Boys with Asheville’s Folk Heritage Committee and back in the studio recording a new Paul’s Creek album.
An icon of mountain music and arts, and you can hear her every other Sunday from 3-6pm when she cohosts a radio show called “This Old Porch” on WNCW 88.7FM.
La artista: Miriam Allen
Three words: Multi-cultural; Esoteric; Fusion
Her recipe for jam: The works of this singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/dancer pull from her South Carolina roots and Latin American globetrotting. Her band, Miriam Allen and the Pasionistas, infuses the sounds of country strings and the voice of a southern belle with a sultry Spanish flair. Her love of ranges is evident – Appalachian, Andean and vocal – in a delectable fusion of musical flavors and rich melodies. She and her band can be found in musical hot spots around Asheville such as the Bywater on Riverside Drive and Jack of the Wood on Patton Avenue, downtown.
The Laydee: Laydee Laine Lewis
Three words: Space-age; Soul; Rapper
Her recipe for jam: Laydee Laine’s first love is hip hop, but this singer/rapper is also a theater performer and quite active in the musical community. You’d probably recognize her from a local band called “The Ones,” as in we are The Ones we’ve been waiting for.
Laine’s voice has been called “a whole choir unto itself” and she can belt out southern soul or hunker into the pulsing rhythm of space-age hip hop, rapping alongside bandmate Sebastian Campagna aka Campaign.
Where you can find her: Laydee Laine performed in the NC Stage theater production, Hedwig and the Angry Inch in 2011, and sang all of the female vocals for a new album being released by alt/punk/country group The Spandrels. In spreading the “hip hop(e),” she recently emceed at a breast cancer benefit for the community peace program, The Traveling Bonfires.
Jazzhands at Work: Sharon Lamotte
Three words: Multi-faceted; Jazz; Impres(s)ario
Her recipe for jam: Sentimentally sweet, or bold and edgy, sometimes dark but always swinging! Of Sharon’s performances, Toni Monetta of Rapid River says: “Experiencing one of Lamotte’s live performances close up is like diving into a dose of honesty … She resembles an earth goddess holding reverence for the natural simplicity of the song.” Now performing with the Bill Gerhardt Quartet throughout the Southeast, she pops up regularly at local jazz performances in Asheville.
Where you can find her: In collaboration with her band, the Taken Back Quartet, she created a non-profit called the Jazz Composers Forum for presenting and documenting original, instrumental jazz. With early support from the Asheville Area Arts Council, the program took off and has conducted over 200 performances and workshops in multiple states along the east coast. Sharon also runs a booking and management agency called Call That Jazz. Her secret? Passion … Oh, and that her days are actually 29 hours long.
The Madame: Madame Onça
Three words: Entertainer; Producer; Burlesque
Her recipe for jam: Lauren ‘Onça’ O’Leary holds an entire deck in her hands. She is a career entertainer, event producer, nationally-touring performer, and published author and artist. She’s most recognized in Asheville for ABSfest – the Americana Burlesque and Sideshow Festival that parades through town annually. Great show, right? Yup – she staged it. She also coordinates TribOriginal: Tribal Dance, Music and Culture Camp and dances with the Baraka Mundi dance company.
Where you can find her: Madam Onça has taught belly dance at pre-schools and retirement centers and everything in between. She belly dances, burlesques, cabarets, eats fire and teaches her way around the globe. And because she just wasn’t expressing enough creativity through these mediums, she co-authored and illustrated a book entitled “World Spirit Tarot,” too.
The performer: Heather Maloy
Three words: Ballerina; Producer; Outreach
Her recipe for jam: Heather is the founder, resident choreographer and artistic director for Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance, which is North Carolina’s professional contemporary ballet company as of 2003. She builds on her grace, determination, and the experiences of her commissions through North Carolina Dance Theatre and other prestigious companies all over the South, to continue her creative expression through Terpsicorps. The genius behind the model that Heather created is that the company is presently a summertime operation, which is typically the off-season for dancers. Consequently, Terpsicorps can hire artists from renowned studios across the country to enrich the quality of North Carolina’s ballet culture.
Heather, a graduate of the University of NC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, started her professional dance career with the North Carolina Dance Theatre as the youngest ballerina the company had ever hired at that time. In addition to manifesting Heather’s masterpieces, Terpsicorps has also partnered with UNCSA to create an apprenticeship program, and provide professional learning experience to students of her and many of her fellow dancers’ alma mater.
The musician and mentor: Christine Kane
Three words: Creator; Consultant; Rock-star
Her recipe for jam: With the accompaniment of her acoustic guitar, Christine sings catchy, inspiring, hilarious tunes that have been filling hearts and theater seats for over 15 years. She connects with her music and her audiences by weaving stories into and between songs and digging into the meaning of day-to-day experiences (like the feasibility of lingerie models actually sitting in the kitchen wearing nothing but a thong, or the light that illuminates us from within when we’re overjoyed).
Where you can find her: Christine “went from being a rock star on stage to helping people be rock stars in their lives and businesses.” She’s the Mentor to Women who are Changing the World, as the founder and president of Uplevel You – a million-dollar enterprise focusing on the growth and empowerment of entrepreneurs and creatives around the globe. She’s a creativity consultant and public speaker, mentoring at college campuses, businesses and federal government programs (like the CIA!). She also hosts a local women’s retreat right here in the mountains.
Just the Wright sound: Lizz Wright
Three words: Jazz; Gospel; Power
Her recipe for jam: A native of Georgia and the daughter of a Pentecostal pastor, Lizz Wright’s musical career was founded upon the world of gospel, but took off by beating down the doors to the kingdom of jazz. In her recently released album, “Fellowship,” Lizz cross-pollinates genres in which she finds sacredness. In doing so, she crafts not simply a record of fresh and inimitable music, but a deeply moving experience created by what the NY Times calls an “awesome talent.”
The Duke Performances website describes Wright’s voice as “a captivating instrument, with a sultry grain and impeccable control.” Her voice is truly a gem embedded within the mountains of North Carolina.
The voice: Lois “Lytingale” Hendrickson
Three words: Composer; Singer; Minister
Her recipe for jam: Lyte’s website describes her talent: “The human voice has been called ‘the only instrument God made’ and Lytingale has been called ‘one of God’s finest voices’” which she uses to spread her message of unconditional love, joy, peace and spirituality. As the Minister of Music at the Unity Center of Christianity in Mills River, each week Lyte shares a few of the 350 songs she’s composed and the gift of her vocal or instrumental (guitar, flute, keyboard) accompaniment. She has a pitch-perfect crystal soprano voice for rock, opera, jazz, blues and musical comedy. She has created three albums, and written music used in Unity songbooks and hymnals across the country. She also produces and performs in the Unity Concert Series and the annual Unity Broadway Show.
Where you can find her: Lyte accompanies, composes and sings for Womansong, Asheville’s oldest and largest women’s community chorus. She sings both solo and with the Unitic Band and Trilogy Trio, and performs at weddings. She also teaches Sing for Joy singing classes with Womansong sister, Terri Crosby.
Belting the Blues: Peggy Ratusz
Three words: Enchanting; Empowerment; Chanteuse
Her recipe for jam: Peggy offers up her enchanting voice to the Asheville scene in an irresistible blend of blues, jazz and R&B through a smattering of instrumental bands and collaborations. Peggy describes her band, Peggy Ratusz & the Daddy LongLegs, as “a mix of original and traditional Blues, Soul and Motown music,” gaining international acclaim when they attained a spot at the prestigious International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee in 2010.
Locally, belting the blues has earned Peggy a nod in the Mountain Xpress “Best of WNC” in the Blues and R&B category for five years running, and at the very top in 2012. Peggy Ratusz & The Swing Daddies stirs up some Western and Jazz Swing, with a dash of Jump Blues for locals to cook up a swingin’ dance party.
Where else you can find her: As a vocal coach and staunch advocate for supporting the local music scene, Peggy strives “to continue to produce opportunities for pre-teen and teen bands and singer songwriters” to empower as many artists as she can to share their gifts with the world.
The Leading Light: Kat Williams
Three words: Resonant; Revitalizing; Profound
Her recipe for jam: Kat has called Asheville home since 1997, packing soul and heart-melting vocals into the fibers of our music scene. Beyond this tiny town tucked into the mountains, Kat has lured a national spotlight as an Emmy-nominated actor, the artist chosen to sing at events for Bill Clinton, General Colin Powell and Robin Williams, the opening act for Jay Leno’s local comedy tour, and the star of an off-Broadway show. According to her official webpage, “Kat’s musical philosophy is ‘I have no competition – I can only give you the best of me.’”
And as crowds in Pack Square and Diana Wortham can attest, the best of her will bring down the house, even if it’s under an open sky. Kat enriches our community with R&B, Blues, Jazz and Gospel, Motown, Pop and whatever else inspires her. The power and profundity of her performances allow her listeners’ souls to open up and sing along.
Rachel Winner is the owner of WinnersWords, writing conscientious content for sustainable and socially conscious businesses and non-profits. She is saving the world, one blog at a time. Contact: (828) 290-2245 or Rachel@winnerswords.com.