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Boonville's Big Muddy Folk Festival hits big 20

Monday, March 28, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:26 p.m. CDT, Monday, March 28, 2011
The Rain Dogs pay tribute to the old southern string bands and classic blues masters. They are among the groups preforming at the Big Muddy Folk Festival in Boonville on Friday and Saturday.

BOONVILLE — The license plate says it all: "Folkie." Dave Para and his wife, Cathy Barton, have more than 249,000 miles on their red Ford Windstar van.

"Not much call for professional musicians in Boonville," Para said. "So you kind of have to get around to play."

Big Muddy Folk Festival

What: 20th annual Big Muddy Folk Festival

When: Friday and Saturday

Where: Thespian Hall, 522 Main St., Boonville

Cost: $22 per evening, $39 for the weekend

For schedule and other information: bigmuddy.org. Organizers emphasize that the schedule is tentative, so they encourage people to look at the website before going.

Friday, 7 p.m., main stage of Thespian Hall:

  • Paul Fotsch
  • Cathy Barton and Dave Para
  • Karen Mueller
  • Phyllis Dale
  • Kansas City Rain Dogs

A dance will follow at Turner Hall.

Saturday, times and location to be determined:

Workshops, demonstrations and barbecue. Admission to the workshops is $5 or free with the purchase of a weekend ticket.

Saturday, 7 p.m., main stage of Thespian Hall:

  • Possum Holler Fiddlers
  • Sparky & Rhonda Rucker
  • Bare Bones
  • Mark Dvorak Trio
  • A group finale

Benefit the Big Muddy: Lyle and Nevy Otten of Torrance, Calif., handcrafted a rocking chair in honor of the Big Muddy's 20th anniversary. The drawing will be held Saturday, and all proceeds will go to the Big Muddy. Tickets are on sale now at the Family Shoe Store, 407 Main St., Boonville. Tickets are for six for $5, 15 for $10 and 40 for $20.


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In 1991, after traveling off and on for seven years, they hosted the first Big Muddy Folk Festival. Inspired by the Ann Arbor Folk Festival at the University of Michigan, they approached the Friends of Historic Boonville and began creating plans for the Big Muddy.

At the first meeting with the committee, local folk musician Bob Dyer said he had always schemed of doing a festival at one of the islands out in the Missouri River and calling it the Big Muddy Spirit Jam. The Big Muddy stuck, and this weekend, the festival will mark its 20th anniversary.

"Of course with Boonville having the Thespian Hall, which is a wonderful pre-Civil War opera house, it seemed like a natural setting once we cooked up the idea," Barton said.

Thespian Hall was there when the Civil War came to town 130 years before the first Big Muddy. During the summer of 1861, the Battle of Boonville was one of the first battles in Missouri's "Brothers War." As the state and the nation mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, Para and Barton have created a lineup of folk musicians to commemorate the past and celebrate the future.

Here's the lineup:

Sparky and Rhonda Rucker

Sparky and Rhonda Rucker have traveled as far as Australia to sing and tell their stories of the American folk tradition.

"We do traditional music of all kinds, starting with early American going right though the early Civil Rights movement," Sparky Rucker said. Internationally recognized as a leading folklorist, he has been educating audiences with his poignant stories of the Civil War for more than 40 years.

"We both have interest in (the Civil War era) not only through the music but through our family histories," Rhonda Rucker said.

Sparky Rucker's ancestors were slaves, and Rhonda's great-great-grandfather, Lt. Col. William Thedford, was stationed in Nashville, Tenn., during February 1862. Thedford witnessed the great panic that occurred as the Union army began marching south and prepared to take over the city.

"We try to include some history whenever we can," Rhonda Rucker said.

Their music was included on the Grammy-nominated anthology "Singing Through the Hard Times." In 2005, they were asked to perform "Heroes and Hard Times: A Black Folk Odyssey" at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

"Rhonda and I were fortunate to be there in February, and I was able to give my version of the State of the Union well before the president did because it was also broadcast on the Web," Sparky Rucker said.

Their toe-tapping style includes moving stories of slavery to a witty rendition of "Brer Rabbit." Sparky Rucker plays the banjo, blues guitar and spoons, and Rhonda Rucker plays the harmonica, piano, banjo and bones — pieces of animal rib bone that you rattle against one another. 

Bare Bones

Taking their name directly from their raw form of unaccompanied performance, Bill and Becky Kimmons and Mark Davis rely on their voices to carry their performances. The trio used to be called The Missing Person Soup Kitchen Gospel Quartet — Soup Kitchen, for short.

"My husband and I were just talking about our a cappella music, and he mentioned the unadorned chord, the bare bones of music, and I just thought, that's it — that's the name we have been looking for years," Becky Kimmons said.

She is particularly excited to visit with her fellow folk artists, the Ruckers.

"Sparky is a real scholar," Becky Kimmons said. "He digs deep into the history behind his music. They help you understand the music you love."

Bare Bones will pay homage to African-American music, singing "Do Lord" — one person talking to God and asking if he is remembered.

"African-American music has great harmony and great rhythm," Becky Kimmons said. "You really can't beat it."

As well as performing on Saturday, the Kimmonses will teach a workshop on how to sing harmony by ear.

"We love to teach people who have never thought about singing without a guitar or banjo," said Becky Kimmons, who is driving west with her husband from their Charleston, W.Va., home to help their friends Barton and Para celebrate Big Muddy. 

Possum Holler Fiddlers

Karlene and Bob McGill formed the Possum Holler Fiddlers three years ago to pass on traditional Ozark music to another generation of fiddlers. Ranging in age from 11 to 19, the fiddlers have performed at more than 30 events, including at Silver Dollar City and the inauguration of Gov. Jay Nixon.

The McGills met Barton and Para while playing at the Missouri Folklore Society.

"Honestly, I had never heard of the Big Muddy," Karlene McGill said. "When Dave and Cathy heard us, they were elated that those kids were so good and invited (Possum Holler Fiddlers) to come over and play at the festival."

They will perform traditional Appalachian music with a Scottish twist and teach a workshop.

To be a part of the group, each performer goes through "Boot Camp," a weeklong summer camp during which they learn traditional fiddle techniques.

"When I say traditional, I mean they play everything by ear," Karlene McGill said. "They are not reading a note of music."

The Possum Holler Fiddlers are raising money to take their fiddles to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, in August.

"Everybody is excited, I am telling you," Karlene McGill said.

Cathy Barton and Dave Para

Organizers Cathy Barton and Dave Para will walk only two blocks from their house to the festival grounds to play Civil War music they produced with Bob Dyer before his death in 2007.

"Dave and I have made a point to collect songs that were well known during the Civil War period in Missouri, so we have a little bit of a different slant," Barton said.

Para and Barton have spent more than half of each year on the road since 1984, when Para quit his job at the Boonville Daily News. The couple travels around playing traditional folk music. In spring 2010, they released their 17th album, "Sweet Journeys." It included "Songteller," a song in tribute to Dyer, the local folk musician who helped plan the first Big Muddy, according to the couple's website.

This year, they will travel to teach at banjo camps in Florida and Michigan.

"A lot of folk music has to do with passing it down, and so you find yourself doing a lot of traveling," Para said.

Phyllis Dale

For more than 50 years, singer and pianist Phyllis Dale has traveled to all U.S. states and 65 countries. As a lounge act for 30 years, she performed songs from the 1900s through the 1940s, according to her website. For 11 years, she played on the Delta Queen Steamboat and entertained guests as they floated down the Missouri River and its tributaries.

Despite her worldwide travel, her love for Boonville runs deep. After her guest performance at the 2008 festival, a fan came up to her at a downtown diner and asked her to autograph his menu.

"I was just so honored," Dale said. "It will be a memory I will never forget."

She has been invited back to the Big Muddy, this time on the bill, but has refused to accept any payment. Instead, she is asking that any money she would have received be given to preserving Thespian Hall.

"I am not from (Boonville), but there is something about that town — the way they keep the history alive and what they are doing with that beautiful Thespian Hall," Dale said. "After being in show business for as many years as I have, it is just wonderful to see such passion."

Kansas City Rain Dogs

A pack of wet dogs singing in the rain might sound miserable, but the Kansas City Rain Dogs' lively eclectic style drives the blues away.

"Everything from boogie-woogie meets ragtime meets jug band with hints of rock 'n' roll," said Jim Herbert, vocalist and finger-picking guitarist.

For 12 years, original band members Jim Herbert, Karla Peterie, Mike Roark and Phil Smith have performed with acoustic guitars, piano, mandolin, bass, harmonica and washboard.

The KC Rain Dogs return to the Big Muddy stage for the first time since 2006.

"We just had a lot of fun," Herbert said. "I thought it was a great festival and wished it could have lasted a couple of days longer."

Karen Muller

Karen Muller is one of the top autoharp and mountain dulcimer players today.

Muller, who in 2006 was inducted into the Autoharp Hall of Fame, according to her website, will play on the main stage and hold a dulcimer workshop Saturday.

"There are many people around the country that are very good," said Para, her good friend, "but she is one of the best."

Paul Fotsch

The most-seasoned veteran, Paul Fotsch is returning for his seventh Big Muddy to make his solo debut. Fotsch has spent 25 years traveling to more than 30 states performing on fiddle, guitar and mandolin.

"It is really special to have a folk festival right here in mid-Missouri and not have to drive two days to get to it," Fotsch said. "I get to see lots of friends, and there is always high-quality music with a very supportive audience."

Fotsch will perform a song written by Dyer, his friend. Inspired by a coffee-table book about the Bermuda Triangle and the lost city of Atlantis, Dyer wrote "Here I Go" while housesitting for Fotsch.

"The song is about all the people of Atlantis being born again on the Earth to try to avoid the total catastrophe," Fotsch said. "It's kind of timely with all the catastrophic things happening and people predicting the dire end of civilization as we know it; it is kind of prophetic."

Mark Dvorak Trio

Modern-day troubadour Mark Dvorak has been performing since 1981, singing traditional folk music and writing his own renditions. Dvorak is based in his hometown, Chicago, and has traveled to more than 40 states to play his acoustic guitar and sing about the nation's history, according to his website.

Dvorak will be joined by Ellen Shepard, a versatile singer and banjo player, and Chris Walz, a guitar player who will be returning to the Big Muddy after last performing for the festival in 1999 with The Special Consensus, a bluegrass band.


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K Brown March 28, 2011 | 8:56 a.m.
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