It’s no mistake that the word “roots” is central to the name of a northern Maine music festival that has grown in popularity since 2006.
Each year, Arootsakoostik draws musicians from throughout Maine to perform in the band shell at Thomas Park in New Sweden. For founder Travis Cyr, 38, the one-day-event fulfills a dream.
Cyr was certain he would have to leave home to be part of the music scene he envisioned for his future after he graduated from Van Buren High School in 1993. Bands didn’t come to play in northern Maine, and there was “no place where like-minded folks could gather, meet, perform and appreciate each other,” he recalled. So he left.
He had a “wide variety of employment adventures,” including jobs as a coach, a bag-boy, a carpet cleaner, a painter, a farmer, a pizza maker, a landscaper, a bartender, a substitute teacher, a warehouse worker, a laborer, a big brother and a musician. He attended the University of Maine at Farmington for a while and then decided to move to Vermont, where he traveled and worked at a plant nursery.
“It was great, beautiful honest work,” he said, but even though Vermont was a lot like home, it never felt right, so he moved to the greater Portland area.
“I was never a city guy,” he said of his reactions to the cars, lights, people and fast pace of life in Portland. “All the noise and none of the beauty, or just a different kind of beauty than my soul requires,” he said. “The County was calling me home.”
Memories of growing up at Long Lake began to sharpen in his mind. He remembered sitting in his kayak, alone, watching the sun set, and then watching “that same sun rising again through the fog on the water.” He remembered “the smell of the trees and the decaying leaves after a rain in early fall, and the night sky, the dust settling, and the stars — oh my, the stars!”
Ultimately, he could not sacrifice “the quiet comfort of Aroostook County — our small towns and way of life” – for the music scene of the city. After a year in Portland, he returned to Aroostook County in 2001. Rather than seeking the arts elsewhere, he decided to nurture the arts at home.
“When Phish, a band I had listened to and admired since my high school days, came to Limestone and put on not one but three amazing cultural, artistic events, well, that gave me hope,” Cyr said.
Cyr began playing when and wherever he could — in bars, restaurants, living rooms and art galleries. He wove together the chords of his guitar and the words he had written over the years expressing his love of nature, peace and solitude, creating a rich repertoire of original songs.
As he played here and there in Maine, he crossed paths with other musicians who inspired him to start the annual music fest in New Sweden.
“I began to realize that there is some incredible music being created and performed right here in our state,” he said, adding that many musicians expressed a desire to play in Aroostook County. But where?
Built in 1936, the Thomas Park music bowl has been the stage for Swedish Midsommar festivals, band concerts, church services, Boy Scout programs and town celebrations for more than 75 years. Facing a hillside of outdoor seating, it was the perfect venue.
The festival was launched Sept. 17, 2006, in New Sweden’s Thomas Park. Called “Gardenstock,” the first concert drew about 40 people to hear three local singer/songwriters. The event raised about $150 in food and funds to donate to a local soup kitchen.
The next year, they changed the name to Arootsakoostik, fusing the name of the county with acoustic and/or roots music. The second concert featured eight musical acts, doubled the size of the audience and raised $300 to donate to the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Maine.
“The founders and organizers of this event showed that the true sentiment of Arootsakoostik is giving to others,” said David Spooner, a member of the committee that manages the park.
Spooner praised the event planners for not only giving the people of Aroostook County “the opportunity to listen to amazing music that originates from around the state of Maine right here in central Aroostook,” but also for leaving the park in better condition than they found it. “Not a piece of litter could be found.”
When it was evident the aging band shell required major reinforcement, Arootsakoostik donated $1,000 after the 2012 concert, the largest single donation the committee had received.
While most of this year’s performers were Portland based, they reflected Cyr’s original goal of showcasing people with roots in Aroostook County. Fellow organizer and musician Frank Hopkins of Portland hails from Wallagrass. Lil’ Timmy Findlen with his Aroostook Hillbillies is originally from Fort Fairfield, though he is now based in Nashville, Tenn. The John Clavette Band came from Portland, maintaining its record of performing at every Arootsakoostik since its founding. Clavette is from Madawaska.
“Musicians have told me they look forward to coming to Aroostook,” Cyr said, as we listened to the Tumbling Bones. A total of 18 groups performed during the day, with a number of spontaneous performances by unscheduled musicians.
The day before the event, an enthusiastic crew of about 20 volunteers showed up to prepare staging and sound and to convert the park into a scene where metallic stars and 78 rpm records dangled from strings overhead, spinning slowly in the breeze.
“I am humbled by the number of people offering me their hands,” Cyr said, giving special credit to his parents, Rick and Rhonda Cyr, and to his co-organizer and fellow musician Matthew Beaulieu of Van Buren.
New attractions are added every year. This year, a path through the woods lined with old pictures nailed to trees led to a tiny venue named Earthcraft where groups performed during the day with seating for seven people on wooden folding chairs.
Vendors sold goods ranging from jewelry and hula hoops to a wide selection of foods and beverages. Children cavorted in the sun, some dancing in a ring with their elders.
“We are just blown away by the support,” Cyr said, describing the event as a “family reunion” for participants eager to share their talents without the ego issues one might expect.
“They totally get the idea of community. It has taken on a much bigger meaning than anything Matt or I could envision. It warms our souls.”