The 10th annual Arootsakoostik Music Festival in New Sweden on July 9 was a time for reflection as well as celebration for the festival’s founder, performers and fans.
Created to expose Aroostook County music lovers to some of the state’s best bands, the annual event also has come to have special meaning for returning musicians who have formed a kinship with each other and the northern Maine venue.
“Aroots teaches me things every year,” said Travis Cyr of Van Buren, the festival’s founder and an acoustic musician and songwriter. “Last year I learned how much we mean to the local community. This year I learned how much we actually mean to each other [the musicians].”
If your passion is music — acoustic performance and composition — and you live in Maine, it is almost inevitable you will end up in the Portland area. But if home is Aroostook County, and those roots run deep, it can be hard to reconcile your musical needs and your sense of place.
Cyr tried to nurture his musical instincts in southern Maine, even Vermont, supporting himself with a variety of ventures, from landscaping to pizza making.
He ended up in Portland, but he didn’t stay long. When he thought about the sun setting over Long Lake, the smell of the trees, the night sky and the stars — “Oh, my, the stars” — he felt “The County was calling me home.”
He returned to Van Buren in 2001, performed when and where he could, composed numerous songs expressing his love of nature, peace and solitude, and began to envision a way to attract some of the great bands in Maine to Aroostook County.
His vision became reality 10 years ago when he started the annual music festival that has not only enriched Aroostook County music lovers but spawned a community of musicians who are drawn to Thomas Park in New Sweden as much for the opportunity to interact with each other as to entertain receptive audiences.
Originally called Gardenstock, the Arootsakoostik Music Festival has grown from a small concert featuring a handful of local artists to a festival with a full day of continuous performances, a variety of food and craft vendors and hundreds of audience members of all ages.
Most performers are from the Portland area, many with Aroostook County roots, and their compensation barely covers the cost of the trip north. They come for other reasons.
“Aroostook is special,” said musician Frank Hopkins, who is originally from Wallagrass and now a full-time production manager for several clubs in Portland.
“People here are respectful; they are really listening. They genuinely value the art,” he said describing why artists like to come to New Sweden. “This is real.”
He called the Thomas Park band shell, with its extraordinary acoustics, a “one-of- a-kind venue” that helps make Arootsakoostik a “one-of-a-kind festival in the state.”
Fort Kent native Jack Murray, who manages sound for the festival, is one of the Aroostook County people Cyr encountered when he was in Portland.
Owner of Ocean Sound and Lighting in Portland, Murray said Arootsakoostik has a “good buzz” downstate. It has become well-known, so artists have heard of it when they are approached.
“Bands fall in love when they come up — they clear their schedules [when invited],” he said.
Musician and songwriter Putnam Smith of Durham, originally from Massachusetts, proclaimed, “I love it up here” to his audience Saturday.
With a schedule that has taken him to 40 states across the nation, he has performed at nine Arootsakoostik festivals and returned to The County six times in the last year.
“It’s clearly the people” who draw him back year after year, he said. “I have more and more members of my Aroostook County family every time I come back.”
He added that the number of returning musicians also was a testament to Cyr.
“Travis has built relationships with musicians. There is a loyalty and trust that draws people back,” Smith said.
As Cyr reflected on the slow organic growth of the festival, he observed that “the musical landscape has changed.”
Members of the music community have matured, had families, shifted priorities, he said.
As an example, he mentioned Garrett Soucy of Liberty, to whom Cyr feels indebted as a “spark” who helped him start the festival. Now the father of seven children, Soucy returned to the Arootsakoostik stage this year after a six-year hiatus from performing.
Cyr is grateful that venues in The County such as Eureka Hall in Stockholm continue to invite downstate musicians to perform, and he is excited about a concert scheduled for Sept. 18 at the 10th Mountain Lodge in Fort Kent — being held in partnership with the Bangor Daily News — featuring a number of musicians with Aroostook County connections.
“It’s been a blessing of good things,” he said citing support for the festival in New Sweden and among fans.
There has never been a complaint from townspeople, and concertgoers always leave the park clean.
But Cyr is not promising Arootsakoostik will continue.
“The team is taxed,” he said of the volunteers, including every member of his family, who put the event together. “We don’t want the quality to suffer.”
“Ten years is a good time to stand back, take a breath and look at the future,” he said.
Whether there will be an Arootsakoostik festival in New Sweden or not next year is undetermined, Cyr said.
“Whatever we have created will continue, but maybe in different venues,” he said.
He is “leaving it open to the unexpected.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.