Called: Local songwriter up for gospel music awards
Published 11:00 am Thursday, March 30, 2023
Lincoln County songwriter Rona Barrett has loved music for as long as she can remember.
“I grew up in a little Southern Baptist church where gospel singers Ward and Irene Hurt (The Ward Hurt Singers) had retired, so I was surrounded by gospel music,” Barrett said. “By the time I was in kindergarten, I had started taking violin.”
Classically trained, over the next few years, Barrett had progressed in her skills to the point she had won awards from the International Association of Music Clubs, ranking “excellent” and “superior” two years in a row.
Then adolescence arrived and the freedom of a driver’s license distracted her from playing for a while. She did pick up the bow again, however, and has since performed across South Mississippi, recorded albums and videos, and taught music to up to a dozen students at a time for years.
Barrett is now up for two awards in the 7th Annual Mississippi Music Awards, presented by the Mississippi Music Foundation — Best in Mississippi Gospel, Vocalist of the Year (C.L. Shaddock Award); and Original Gospel Song of the Year for “Old Church House.” Anyone can vote in support of the nominations at www.mississippimusicfoundation.org.
Barrett considers herself an artist in country music, Southern rock, gospel and the blues.
“I don’t think anybody from Mississippi could get away without doing gospel or blues,” she said.
She’s released two albums, both produced by Tyler Bridge in Brookhaven Music Studios, and is currently at work on another album that includes at least six or seven more original songs.
Originally from the Byrd Line community in Pearl River County, she met her husband, Chris Herring, while they were both taking breaks from college in Hattiesburg — Barrett from William Carey University and Herring from Southern Miss. They since married and have six children, and eventually moved to Herring’s home area of Lincoln County. Herring’s father Mike was the bass singer in Midnight Cry, a Southwest-Mississippi-based gospel group.
Not long after arriving in Brookhaven in the spring of 2011, Barrett (who uses her maiden name for artist identification) walked into the old music store on South Railroad Avenue, asking for violin music so she could teach an aspiring player.
“Tyler Bridge’s violin teacher had quit just a couple of weeks earlier, and he pretty much hired me on the spot to teach violin,” she said.
Years later, Barrett decided she wanted to record something and have Bridge produce it in his studios.
“He told me to write my own songs first, so I did.”
That recording became the album “Lost John Road,” described on YouTube as “dirt-road country music.”
When COVID-19 hit, Barrett began work on an album that drew from her roots in gospel music, “The Old Church House.” She shares her musical talents live on the stage, too, from Natchez to the Gulf Coast, and — of course — locally in Brookhaven.
She also continues to teach others how to play violin, viola, cello and basic guitar, along with vocal lessons. Her heart is firmly anchored with her students.
“I have a passion for kids as a music instructor,” Barrett said. “I can light a way for them to use their talents, and to go farther once they get out of school.”
Some of her students get signed up by parents who want to fill the child’s schedule. Some students have already displayed a natural gift for music. No matter the reason they’re there or what their starting aptitude, Barrett wants to meet them where they are and take them as far as she can in their musical training.
Some of her students have had learning disabilities, and she loves being able to work with them through music. A man she knew in her hometown had a mental disability, but was a phenomenal harmonica player. She fondly recalls her interactions with him as inspiring her to teach others.
Her students have played at weddings and other events, and at least four have obtained musical scholarships to Mississippi College, Southern Miss and Delta State. Barrett gets a lot of joy from helping her students shine. Now maybe it’s her turn.
The fact that she’s been nominated for the Mississippi Music Awards still makes Barrett smile and shake her head at the wonder of it all. While acknowledging the standard award disclaimer that it is an honor “just to be nominated,” she would be delighted to win.
“It would really help me stand out and boost my reputation as a musical artist, and shine some positive light back into Mississippi because it is my home,” she said, “and what we have in Mississippi is incomparable to anywhere else in the world. It’s an opportunity to get my foot in the door to higher opportunities.”
The awards show will be at the Landers Center in Northwest Mississippi on April 22.
But even if someone else wins in those categories, it won’t put a ding in the joy Barrett finds in sharing her gifts through teaching and performing. She has a greater reason to keep doing it all.
“This is what God called me to do.”