Cathy Barton Para’s loved ones describe her as imaginative, sweet-tempered, intelligent, sensitive and full of love.
Though she never had formal lessons or training, she taught herself the banjo, learned to sing and was one of the first hammered dulcimer players in the region. Cathy was recognized nationally for her music, and played at the Grand Ole Opry and on “Hee Haw.”
“Music just spoke to her from the very beginning,” her sister, Judith Gibbons, said.
Cathy, who was 63 when she passed away from cancer April 17, played music with her husband for more than 40 years. The duo specialized in traditional music from the Missouri Ozark region. Together, the couple made 16 albums and started the Big Muddy Folk Festival for the Friends of Historic Boonville. She performed with her husband, David Para, at the 28th festival, held April 5-6.
“Our festival has always drawn a big crowd, and most of those people come to support Cathy and I,” he said.
Many performers understood Cathy’s health and dedicated songs to her.
“Music was very important to her,” David said. “We believed there’s a certain spiritual aspect of music. She placed a lot of importance on the love of friends and family.”
He fondly remembers when they met playing music at the Chez Coffee House on Hitt Street in Columbia.
“I can’t think of anyone who didn’t like her — very welcoming, open-hearted and -minded,” he said.
Cathy’s mother was always a big supporter of her music and loved hearing her play. She would watch her anytime she could.
The spring after her mother died in 2001, Cathy and her husband drove to a performance.
“We were driving on the highway, and there was a big storm, and we actually saw a rainbow,” David said. “It was really marvelous against the dark sky. She told me later that she saw her mother walking in the rainbow holding flowers.”
Afterward, at the performance, there was a young woman playing the banjo.
“She was just a happy player and played well,” he said. “As we were listening, Cathy turned to the woman next to her and said, ‘Wow, she’s really good.’ The woman turned to her with a great big smile on her face and said, ‘That’s my daughter.’ Cathy got to see what her mother had seen in her.”
Cathy found importance in keeping the traditions of folk music alive.
“She had a style of banjo that was really old-timey, and she loved to play fiddle tunes on the banjo,” said Mike Fraser, her friend of more than 30 years. “She was the epitome of a folk musician because she learned to play by ear.”
She would always allow other people to play with her, regardless of their musical talents.
“Cathy never let ability decide who got to play with her,” fellow musician and friend Tenley Hansen said. “She was nurturing, as a musician, but also as a person.”
Though music was a big part of her life, according to her husband and friends, she also placed a significance on her friends, family and community. An “Army brat” growing up, she moved around frequently until ending up in Columbia in 1967. After attending Hickman High School, she went on to Stephens College and then received a master’s degree in folklore from Western Kentucky University.
“Her interest in folklore, folk stories, art and music, all of it tied together,” Gibbons said. “She had a tremendous respect for the people and for what everyday people bring to life.”
Cathy and David performed at many different venues but returned to the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, more than 20 times. The festival is made up of bluegrass and folk players from around the Midwest.
Since the festival is composed of musicians, jam sessions would happen at night or during the day in the campgrounds.
“A friend of ours gave us a recording of these people at the festival playing a jam session,” David said. “We were driving in the car, and there was an instant joy that came over her face when we listened to it. It was just people having a jam session, and the recording wasn’t great, but you could hear them kinda whoop and holler. She turned to me in the car, and she said, ‘Ya know, this is what music is all about,’ and that’s a very strong statement,” he said. “It wasn’t about being a showman or audiences — it was about the sheer joy of it all.”
A memorial service is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday, May 4, at First Christian Church in Boonville. A cemetery visit and a musical gathering will follow.