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Smile and style

Banjoist Barton remembered for sharing culture through music
Cathy Barton Para smiles, holding her banjo and sitting in front of her hammered dulcimer at the Carp Camp at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas. [Courtesy of Dave Para]
By Brendan Crowley GateHouse Missouri
Posted: Apr. 28, 2019 5:22 pm

BOONVILLE — Cathy Barton Para’s musical influence stretches from coast to coast, among the Ozark Mountains, along the rivers of Missouri and the mid-South, and in Boonville, her home for nearly 40 years.

She played for decades with her husband, Dave Para. In Boonville, they made a space for their beloved music with the Big Muddy Folk Festival, which fills Thespian Hall with folk music traditions each spring.

Barton, 63, died on April 17 at home with friends and family. A memorial service is planned for 3 p.m. Saturday at First Christian Church in Boonville.

Born on June 12, 1955, in Fort Benning, Georgia, she moved around Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia and Hawaii, and finally to Columbia, where she graduated from Hickman High School.

Her interest in folk music and culture sparked in Hawaii with ukulele classes and visits to the Polynesian Cultural Center.

As a young, talented banjo player, Barton met Ramona and Grandpa Jones in the Arkansas Ozarks, and they brought her to Nashville. In Tennessee, she twice won the state-wide old-time banjo contest. She also played on “Hee Haw” at the Grand Ole Opry and became Roy Acuff’s favorite banjo player.

“She really had an amazing right hand and totally nailed the Grandpa Jones style of playing,” said fellow old-time banjo player Cathy Fink. “She also played in other styles, but the hard-driving clawhammer is what stood out for me.”

Barton could play any instrument she picked up, and she was a master of the banjo, even as a teenager. Joe Newberry remembers seeing Barton play for the first time at a Hickman talent show in 1972. She won, playing “Dueling Banjos” by herself.

“It was, like, the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,” Newberry said, chuckling over the memory. “Her banjo playing was just a marvel to behold and to hear.”

In college, Newberry was roommates with Para in the basement of First Presbyterian Church on Hitt Street, where Para also booked acts for Chez Coffeehouse.

Barton played gigs with her college string band and when it split up, by herself or with friends.

“I was one of those friends,” Para said.

Barton and Para spent more and more time together, and in 1979, they married at First Baptist Church in Columbia.

Newberry’s mother loved Barton and Para. She was in the hospital the day of the wedding. In between the wedding and reception, the couple stopped by Boone Hospital in their gown and tuxedo for a visit.

Para said he was pretty sure the visit was Newberry’s idea, but it was fun to walk in the hospital in their wedding clothes to see her.

“The people at the reception over there were waiting a while, but it was nice,” Para said.

In 1996, the Delta Queen steamboat called out of the blue to ask Barton and Para to play Ozark music on an Arkansas River cruise. More cruises on the American Queen and Mississippi Queen followed, and the pair played riverboats until last November.

It was one of their favorite things to do, Para said.

“We love the river,” Para said. “No matter what river we were on, that was always, to me, the great draw.”

They saw many of the same staff and crew on their cruises and were adopted into the steamboating family, he said. They also liked the connection to history they felt with a big paddle wheel pushing them down the river.

They loved all the rivers they traveled on, but they settled down on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Boonville. The Big Muddy inspired Barton and Para’s work, especially when Barton teamed up with Meredith Ludwig in 2005 to write “Gumbo Bottoms: A Big Muddy Musical.”

Ludwig had been collecting oral histories along the Missouri River and wanted to turn them into a musical. After seeing Barton play, Ludwig asked her to write the songs. She hadn’t written in a while, and writing a musical was completely new to her, Para said.

“She loved the challenge,” Para said. “And everyone loved the songs.”

Barton proved she could write music, but she was best known for her playing. She got a full sound out of her banjo with her distinctive frailing right hand, Newberry said. When she and Para played together, it sounded like a whole band.

A multi-instrumentalist, one of Barton’s signatures was the hammered dulcimer, an instrument with origins circa 800 in the Middle East. The dulcimer, played by using hammers to strike strings stretched across a wooden, trapezoidal soundboard, was popular in Europe in the Middle Ages, but fell out of style in the West in the early 20th century, according to the Smithsonian Institution.

Barton first heard Bill Spence playing the hammered dulcimer on the “Cedar Creek Pickaway” bluegrass program on KOPN. She’d heard the song before, but not the instrument, so she called into the radio station to find out what it was, Para said.

An inspired Barton couldn’t find a hammered dulcimer anywhere around Columbia, so her father, Claude, decided he could make her one. He ended up making the first three hammered dulcimers she played, Para said.

Paul Pepper first met Barton when he did a segment about her father making the dulcimer for his “Pepper and Friends” TV show. Pepper had never seen anyone play the hammered dulcimer before, but after that, Barton, Para and the instrument were frequent guests. Pepper said he’s lost count of how many times the pair appeared over the past 35 years, between the TV show and his current radio program on KBIA.

Barton and Para were also frequent guests in Boonville classrooms. Their visit to Edward Lang’s fourth grade class was one of his fondest memories of grade school. It contributed to his love of music, history and culture, and his understanding and appreciation of his own community, the former Boonville Daily News editor wrote of the duo in 2014.

Barton was an open musician. She could show anyone anything she knew, and she didn’t put herself above the music, Para said.

“It wasn’t, ‘Look at me play the banjo,’ but, ‘Here’s a tune I can play that I learned from this person, and it comes from here, how many years ago,’” he said.

Barton’s love of sharing culture through music manifested in the Big Muddy Folk Festival. Each spring for the past 28 years, Barton and Para brought the gamut of folk traditions to play in Boonville’s historic Thespian Hall, along with Bob Dyer and the Friends of Historic Boonville.

This year’s festival was held April 5 and 6, and Barton was up on the Thespian Hall stage, her beaming smile as wide as always. This year’s festival was a beautiful celebration, said Kelly Smith, who helped put it together as the executive director of Friends of Historic Boonville.

Smith remembers Barton as a gentle person with the best laugh, she said. She grew up going to church with Barton and Para.

“They were like celebrities to me,” she said.

Newberry said he was glad there are so many recordings of Barton playing online.

“It’s not the same,” he said. “But if we get really lonesome, we can go to YouTube and we can see that beautiful smile one more time.”

bcrowley@gatehousemedia.com

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