30th Big Muddy Folk Festival marks personal milestones


Violet Vonder Haar felt for the first time the magical pull of performing original songs at the Big Muddy Folk Festival.

Many of his earliest vivid memories of live music are tied to the cultural institution of central Missouri. A festival attendee since childhood, Vonder Haar recalls an outfit she eagerly picked out for a first Big Muddy experience. And the smell of barbecue anywhere still brings to mind festival-related barbecues, she said.

But for the stalwart local songwriter, who shaped Missouri’s modern sound as a solo artist and with his band, Undercurrentsnothing beats this first juvenile part of the star in 2002.

Moved by a tragedy that claimed the life of a riverboat pilot, Vonder Haar’s father, a fellow skipper, penned the lyrics to ‘The Ballad of Captain Charles’. She composed the music with her father, and festival co-founder Dave Para got her to work on a feature film. From that moment on, original music exercises its appeal over his life.

Vonder Haar will come full circle next week, performing a full show at the 30th edition of Big Muddy, taking place Friday and Saturday May 13-14 at Thespian Hall in Boonville.

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She credits Para and her late partner, Cathy Barton, with building a festival that influenced her with close musical relationships and a greater sense of belonging.

“It created this community that helped me become a folk songwriter and musician,” Vonder Haar said.

“Music by the people, for the people”

Big Muddy organizers Barton and Para have established a tradition built on diverse traditions, bringing together national and regional folk talent to share stories and songs they have often learned at the feet of others.

Sifting through the relationships forged at the festival, Vonder Haar shared the importance of the late songwriter Bob Dyer, whose music and approach to life shaped his own. As a teacher, she transmits Dyer’s songs to her students in the same way as folk music.

She also remembered her bond with violin player Violet Hensley on a sweet, silly song playing to their shared name.

Violet Vonder Haar performed at the Big Muddy Folk Festival in 2002.

Big Muddy’s humble genius echoes that of folk music across time and space — its accessibility, Vonder Haar said. Barton’s franchise has reinforced that sensibility, incorporating players of all experience levels into song circles and other events, she added.

“That’s what keeps folk music alive is that it’s accessible,” Vonder Haar said. “…It was music that could be played by anyone. It was music by the people, for the people.”

At this year’s festival, Vonder Haar will perform a varied but quite personal duet with her partner in marriage and music, Phylshawn Johnson.

Johnson, the Undercurrents’ drummer and one of the finest and most expressive percussionists in the Midwest, will stick to the strings, joining Vonder Haar on guitar, mandolin and acoustic bass.

Vonder Haar plans to play the strains of a Dyer song on the hall’s grand piano, play some of Johnson’s songs, and quote favorites from the song’s creative challenge a day she’s taking. is given earlier this year.

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The self-imposed glove brought both intentionality and recklessness to Vonder Haar’s writing, she said. Usually the kind of songwriter who waits for lightning bolts, she decided to “meet the muse halfway through,” she said.

Writing without worrying about the specific sound of the song, or which of her projects would provide the best fit, brought a slack to the process, she said. And Vonder Haar sees his effects ripple through moments that arrive without his guitar in hand.

“By doing it every day, I started traveling the world a little differently — just looking for inspiration,” she said.

At this year’s festival, Vonder Haar will also host a children’s musical event, playing delightful tunes that meet children where they are. For someone who has reached artistic age at the festival, moments like these come with a special potential energy – of being a role model for a new generation of potential folk musicians.

Missouri and its music clearly means – and is a big part of – the world to Vonder Haar. She loves the state so much, including the ability to stay rooted here and “offer something that wasn’t there before.”

Right now, for Vonder Haar, Johnson and fellow musician Audra Sergel, it feels like establishing the Compass Music Center in Colombia, an education and performance center that quickly transforms into open day form.

Vonder Haar savors Missouri’s position at the heart of our country and feels her music radiate beyond state lines.

“I really like that thought, that what we’re doing here is keeping the rest of the country alive. We’re that pulse,” she said.

Other artists to watch at this year’s Big Muddy Festival


Artemisia: Exquisite and inventive vocal arrangements mark the music of Chicago’s Diana Lawrence, Alexandra Olsavsky and Kaitlin Foley. The threesome draws from wells of historical folk and sacred music as well as contemporary expressions, highlighting the work of living female composers.

Listeners will hear a living, breathing, harmonizing testimony to the power of human voices coming together and seeking connection.

Charm City Junction: This Baltimore Quartet play with real vitality, honoring the fathers and mothers of bluegrass by immersing themselves in this music and bringing it to life. Violin, clawhammer banjo, button accordion and double bass string to produce a complex yet extremely natural sound.

The band’s videos feature four players having a blast, and it would take four bars or less for that energy to transfer to the festival audience.

Charming town junction

Howard Marshall: Among the true deans of Missouri roots music, the Moberly native is a master of string theory and practice. Marshall has played many instruments in a variety of settings, but his encyclopedic knowledge of folk music – both studied and experiential – really sings.

Marshall has written key books on Missouri fiddlers and their music, and can trace a fiddle’s roots through its family line, with players dating back to the 1830s, according to Mizzou magazine.

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Snoring horse: Festival leader Dave Para and decades-old friends combine ‘traditional and contemporary Ozark music’ according to their site, delivering sound made to make hearts and bodies dance. The combined experience – and camaraderie – of these musicians promises both a technically sound and viscerally enjoyable time.

Big Muddy tickets are $30 nightly, $50 weekends. For a full festival lineup and other details, visit http://bigmuddy.org/2022/index.html.

Aarik Danielsen is the Features and Culture Editor for Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] or by calling 573-815-1731. Find him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen.

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