Spotlight on Ellen Trnka: Doing Unto Others

I went to Dictionary.com and looked up the word affable. That definition describes Ellen to a “T”rnka: “Friendly, Good-natured; Easy to talk to.” Because I know her personally, and the idea is to introduce readers who might not yet know, or not have attended a performance, of profiled artists, I am supplementing the description for Ms. Trnka with “funny, passionate, insightful, and diligent.”

Ellen Trnka. Photo by Kenneth Voltz

The youngest of three, she was reared in Tenafly, NJ with one sister, Sue, and one brother, Bruce. Their parents played records by all the great Jazz singers. “My mom, a nurse, sang to us daily and had a beautiful voice. My sister Sue performed in musical theater and sang in a few bands. She was my mentor and I probably wouldn’t be where I am now, musically, without her.” By request from the artists, Ellen once sang ‘Stormy Monday Blues’ with Phoebe Snow, while John Pizzarelli asked her to join him on stage to sing a few tunes with his big band. She’s also opened for Saffire, the Uppity Blues Women!

“The years go by at a pace that compels me to believe we never stop learning and growing. Because of that, and the positive feedback I’ve received from family and friends over the years, I honor their faith in me by continuing to pursue my passion.” So it isn’t any surprise that Trnka, like so many fearless and dedicated women and men of agelessness, didn’t pick up a guitar until 14 years ago, at age 40.

Moved by Jazz, Blues, Old School Soul & R&B, Americana, Singer-Songwriter, Classic Country, and Gospel, with a skillful vocal range, she conveys what their messages mean to her with fervent melodic choices, giving one the feeling of being cradled in her arms. It’s what keeps live music lovers coming back for more!

It’s testimony to Ellen’s openness and congeniality that she knows and remembers by name most of the audience at her shows. A few years ago, she experienced a health issue. As word got out, her peers, friends, and fans came together instantaneously to participate in and contribute to a fundraiser to help with medical bills and living expenses. Ellen performed at her own fundraiser with genuine appreciation and vigor. I witnessed her greeting each and every person who attended or played, making sure we all felt acknowledged.

Ellen supports causes by donating her time and talent, and pays it forward to organizations that request her involvement. She is especially drawn to animal advocacy, as well as Multiple Sclerosis research. “I believe to be successful at keeping my calendar full, you have to be honest, friendly, and develop relationships with those that dole out the gig dates. It isn’t enough to just keep emailing, texting, or calling and leaving messages. I go to the venues I play at regularly and support other artists. This makes for a winning combination in negotiations and building personal relationships.

“Songwriting doesn’t always come easy,” she explains. “My songs come out of the blue, and are about life experiences with people and events that happen around me. I usually don’t plan on it.” You can hear a poignant song on Youtube that she penned after 9/11 called ‘Lady Liberty.’ Heartache and hope are the themes of this incredibly meaningful ode and is just one example of the effortlessness that “not planning on it” can impart.

Ellen’s parents, who have both passed, moved to Hendersonville after retirement and she followed them after college. “I love this place!” she exclaims. “There are many amazing musicians in this town that support each other. We’re like one, big, happy family!”

Like Asheville, gigging opportunities have increased in Henderson County. “I am fortunate to share the stage with accomplished virtuosos like Jazz guitarist, Daniel Kellar. When keyboard player and singer songwriter, Carrie Morrison and I get together, it’s all over but the cryin’! Two of my best and tallest musical compadres: magnetic and master Blues guitarist, Howie Johnson and tantalizing, twisted Craig “Woody” on harmonica! We do a lot of trio gigs where we honor my favorite Blues Maven, Etta James, and other artists like Joe Williams, Smokey Robinson, Patsy Cline, and Aretha Franklin. My favorite singers of all time are Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme!”

We talk about one of our mutual professional music friends whom we both ‘sit in’ with from time to time, singer-songwriter guitarist, half of the duo ‘Carver and Carmody’ – Mare Carmody. (Women Making Music feature alumnus from a few years back!) The three of us – Ellen Trnka, Mare Carmody and I have known each other for over 10 years! And for almost that long, we’ve been threatening to put together a collaborative show. Our consortium of fans urged us to put our money where our mouths are and well, we’ve finally come up with a doozy!

“Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” is the name we’ve given our production, where we’ll celebrate the music of Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Rosanne Cash at Altamont Theatre, 18 Church Street in downtown Asheville on Thursday, March 23rd, 8pm. These iconic Classic and Modern Country, Folk and Americana queens were easy for us to choose, but picking the tunes from each one’s impressive library of hits was much harder. We’re even thinking about a Part 2, later in the year, since their collections are so massive.

We’ve solidified the playlist for March 23rd and most importantly, gathered some of the area’s most proficient players to partner with! On pedal steel we have notable, world renowned Austin transplant, Tom Pittman (Austin Lounge Lizards, Jackomo Cajun Band); multi-instrumentalist genius producer, Matt Williams, on fiddle and mandolin (Royal Suits, Zansa, Tiny Boxes); composer, producer, performer and “the man behind the Asheville Sound” Aaron Price (Vendetta Cream, Wham Bam Bowie Band, Bygone Blues, Scrappy Hamilton) on piano and guitar; computer science professor, Rock Band leader of Asheville Music School, and finely tuned accurate and verdant guitarist Alec Fehl (Carolina Rex, Deep River, Bill Mattocks Blues Band); and a rhythm section with the undeniably versatile Justin “Killa” Watt on drums, and Zack “the Zenith” Page, bassist to all the stars, large and small.

I am thrilled to be part of this tribute, knowing that those who haven’t traveled down south to hear Ellen Trnka in her stomping grounds will now get the chance to hear and see this crooner, belter, and exquisite harmonizer right in the heart of downtown Asheville!

Though she has yet to record a CD for sale, you can experience the real deal by checking her schedule at www.bandsintown.com/EllenTrnka! Or on facebook: www.facebook.com/ellen.trnka.

To purchase tickets for Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, visit thealtamonttheatre.com/tickets/.


Peggy Ratusz, vocal coach, concert producer, singer-songwriter, booking manager for the Female Artist Spotlight Night. Peggymarie43@gmail.com; www.reverbnation.com/peggyratusz

Peggy Ratusz
Written by Peggy Ratusz