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The Big Muddy Folk Festival has brought performers to Boonville's Thespian Hall for 28 years. 

Grab your guitars and slip on your foot-stamping shoes — the 28th annual Big Muddy Folk Festival is beckoning folk music into mid-Missouri from April 5-6. Friday evening kicks off a two-day celebration of folk musicians and tunes. The festival, sponsored by the Friends of Historic Boonville, is held in historic Thespian Hall, a fixture in the town of Boonville for more than 150 years.

The Big Muddy Folk Festival has been under the direction of Dave Para and Cathy Barton, a folk music duo, since 1992. The idea of a mid-Missouri folk festival first formed while the pair attended and performed at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival in Michigan.

“It was just neat to see how enthused the audience was, and we just got the idea, why can’t we do something like that in Boonville?” Barton says.

The Ann Arbor festival, sponsored by a coffee house in the area, was held indoors and in the cold January weather. While most of the festivals Para and Barton had attended were held outdoors, this one stuck out. The timing along with the location choice of Thespian Hall made it clear that a folk music festival held in Boonville wasn’t totally out of the question.

Para and Barton got to work planning the event. Having worked with Friends of Historic Boonville before, the duo found an easy partnership with the organization. Collaborating with friends such as Judy Shields, the director of Friends of Historic Boonville at the time, and Bob Dyer, a local historian and fellow musician, the Big Muddy Folk Festival started off as a one-night affair held in May. The festival’s second year saw its move to April and to a two-night event.

Now in its 28th year, the festival has been held in Thespian Hall since its very first performance. Although the hall has provided some space limitations over the years, both Para and Barton say the proximity of the stage to the audience provides an intimate experience for the musicians and attendees.

“I think there’s a real feeling of interactive joy,” Barton says. “That’s the way I’d put it.”

The 2019 festival will feature performers including Ed Trickett and Sara Grey, the McLain Family Band, Barton and Para themselves, and more. One singer slated to perform, Phyllis Dale, attends the festival every year, Barton says. Another act, Québécois performers Bourque Émissaires, is a new addition to this year’s festival.

“I’m not even sure that they’ve been to Missouri before,” Para says.

Para and Barton give Thespian Hall a lot of credit for the festival’s successful atmosphere over the years. Some festival attendees come to hear specific acts, but others arrive with simply a love for the genre. 

The two-day festival is filled with additional events related to folk music. Friday’s concerts are followed by a dance, and on Saturday attendees can visit a number of workshops teaching songwriting, step dancing and how to play odd instruments. A "Ukulele Fight Club," in particular, is sure to draw crowds.

This year, crowds are expected from California, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, Ohio and Tennessee. Para says that the festival depends on the returning crowds from nearby Columbia and Sedalia, too.

“People get to know about the festival, and they’ll just this year make a special trip,” Para says. “They’re usually pretty well-rewarded, I think.”

As performers themselves, Barton and Para enjoy the opportunity to bring a multifaceted view of folk music to audiences of mid-Missouri, even if the festival prep can be a bit tiring. 

“It’s just a real adrenaline push for a couple of days,” Barton says. “And, boy, do I have a let down when it’s done.”

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