Musician Travis Cyr
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He’s been called a one-man music scene.
Three days a week, almost relentlessly, you’ll find him gigging from Madawaska to Portland. At last count, he’s played over 900 shows and broken over 5,396 guitar strings (he says). He’s got five albums under his belt now, and another coming down the pike.
For the past 10 years, he’s helmed the popular Arootsakoostik music festival in northern Maine and manages acts for a local venue there.
This guy, Travis Cyr, he’s just a guy when you get down to it—but one who’s making an indelible mark on the Maine music scene, one for whom music has always been a part of life.
“For the last five years, I’ve been averaging about 150 shows a year,” said Cyr. “Music is the bread and butter at this point, so I just really have to work for it.”
He trades in original, folk-based roots music, with songs like “Sabertooth,” “Bag of Rain” and “Bob Dylan’s Canadian Wife.” There are also nods to his County callings with the tunes “Allagash” and “Yellow Rose of Maine.” He occasionally partners with another Aroostook County native, Matt Beaulieu, who plays mandolin and harmonica. But most of the time, he’s a one-man band.
“I’ve heard it called ‘cerebral folk music,’ ‘acoustical funky folk-grass’… there’ve been all kinds of labels,” Cyr said. “It’s just poetry and pure emotion, and I try to keep it all as organic as possible.”
Last July marked the 10th anniversary of Cyr’s other passion, the popular acoustic music-based festival Arootsakoostik.
“It all started because I knew my friends were doing great things, and I wanted to try and bring some of that culture up north,” he said of the festival, which began in 2006 as Gardenstock. “[I wanted to] expose people up here that may not get a chance to get down to Portland and hear some of these bands.”
In that first year, he said, about 40 people came to hear three local singers and songwriters. The next year, organizers changed the name to Arootsakoostik. That year, eight musical acts performed to a crowd of 80. And each year since, the number of musicians and attendees has continued to grow.
The most recent event drew about 18 performers from all over Maine with about 700 attendees. Cyr said he makes a conscious effort to try and book bands that include musicians native to northern Maine. Today, the festival features multiple genres of music (“Pretty much everything except heavy metal or rap,” said Cyr). Money raised at Arootsakoostik events is donated to a different, local charity each year.
“Every year we manage to put a few more seats and a few more interesting twists to the day,” said Cyr. “I remember two years ago, looking around at the great crowd we had and realizing, ‘Wow, we have an identity now. We actually mean something to this community.’ I mean, there are families that time vacations to come to Arootsakoostik. So it taught me that we’re doing something right and we mean something to people here.”
Growing up on Long Lake in northern Maine, the folksy sounds of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and the Grateful Dead foreshadowed his future. “My dad had a pretty wide variety of music,” he said. “Music was always a dear friend to me. I just didn’t know how much until probably a little later on in life.”
At Van Buren High School, Cyr first picked up the guitar. “Just a bunch of us friends would hang out on the soccer field, strumming guitars.” He was also writing a lot—poetry and verse at first, then chords from his guitar to embellish the words.
“It was just a hobby,” he said. “Something we all enjoyed doing for fun.”
After graduating high school in 1993, Cyr attended the University of Maine at Farmington for a bit. To make ends meet, he dabbled in a plethora of odd jobs. “Geez, I worked in a Scholastic Book Fair warehouse down in Portland for a while,” said Cyr, running down the list. “I lived just south of Burlington, Vermont, and worked at a plant nursery and organic farm out there. I’ve made pizza, I’ve bar tended, I’ve coached girls’ tennis. I mean, I did all kinds of things until I just couldn’t find anything that would give me the satisfaction that playing music did. And it was at that point I just figured, ‘Hey, you gotta be happy with what you’re doing.’”
During that period, Cyr was immersed in multiple music scenes. “I enjoyed the Old Port. I enjoyed the open mics, I enjoyed the variety of bands you could catch,” he said. “When I was living in Vermont, I was seeing bands four, five nights a week. I loved the culture and the community.”
But he also loved his roots. In 2001, he made the move back to Aroostook County. “Honestly, it was just the sparseness of the area and the nothingness of it up here,” he said. “I enjoy the solitude and the rural way of life.”
But the Aroostook County music scene, he found, was also sparse. “There were no open mics in The County at the time,” said Cyr. “There were some great players in northern Maine, but they were all playing AC/DC-type cover music on the weekends, and there was karaoke. There was a void for small acoustic solo or duo acts and there was certainly a void for original material.”
Cyr started bartending to pay the bills. He admits there were times he thought twice about his decision to move back north.
“I had so many friends in the music scene that went on to become some of the great bands that we love to hear in Maine today,” he said. “I know good things would have happened [if I’d have stayed south]. It was hard to wrestle with that decision for awhile. But ultimately, in my heart, I just felt like, ‘Why not try to bring some of what’s down there, up here.’ I thought there was a need…that I could fulfill up here. And that kind of encouraged me, pushed me to storm ahead blindly.”
In 2001, he got his first break. “I heard of a bar somewhere near Fort Kent or Madawaska that was looking for some acoustic entertainment,” said Cyr. “I gave them a call and ended up getting paid to go play music for a couple of hours.”
That was all it took. Now, nearly 17 years later, Cyr has found plenty of places to play all over Maine. In addition to his County stomping grounds, he travels regularly to the coast in the summer, Maine’s ski slopes come winter, and his old stomping grounds in Portland when he can.
In the meantime, Cyr is excited about his other venture—Eureka Hall in Stockholm. The two-story business boasts fine dining upstairs and a tavern downstairs. Owners George Pappa and Danielle Mazerolle took over the place in 2010. They’re now transitioning the name to Eureka Restaurant and Tavern.
About six years ago, Cyr was first booked to perform there.
“He’s an amazing songwriter, and his playing style—it’s a little bit different than everybody else,” said Pappa. “The minute we heard him, we were big fans.”
Afterward, Cyr approached Pappa and Mazerolle about bringing other musicians to the tavern. They agreed. “He said he had been waiting quite a long time to find a place in The County that he would want to bring bands to,” said Pappa.
“Other businesses weren’t willing to take a chance on an original bluegrass band,” added Cyr. “The Eureka became an extension of the original musical community in northern Maine. Now, I can bring bands up every month rather than once a year.”
Bands are booked for both Friday and Saturday nights. “We do original music only at the Eureka,” said Cyr. “And we still pack the place.”
“It’s been pretty cool to see the relationship between Arootsakoostik and Eureka, and the musical acts that have heard of both of us,” said Pappa. “We had a guy here last spring that was from Alaska. We had another guy up here that tours the country, he was on his third national tour. He was out of Texas. We’ve pulled bands in from the Midwest, all over. These are mostly musicians that don’t really care whether they’re making a million dollars or just paying the bills. They just want to make music.”
He acknowledges that being a professional musician has its risks. “Let’s face it, there’s not much job security in what I do. I hustle any gig I can take. I did a whole bunch of private parties for hospitals and things like that during the holidays, I do a lot of restaurant and lounge work. I do a lot of driving,” said Cyr. “This is a labor of love.”
His persistence has paid off in other ways. Cyr humbly accepts his role in putting The County on Maine’s musical map. “I feel like I definitely caused some havoc up here with the music scene, for sure,” he said with a chuckle. “I definitely shook the cage.”
And as word about Cyr’s music continues to spread, so does his fan base—something the 41-year-old is genuinely surprised to hear.
“That’s actually been unknown to me until you brought it to my attention,” he said. “It’s always just been something that I feel I need to do, and I feel a pure love to do so. I feel blessed, immensely blessed to be able to play music for people…or put on a music festival that people have come to enjoy. It’s very nice to be acknowledged for something that you love doing.”
For more info on Travis Cyr, his performance schedule and his music (including his forthcoming release “Stay Glad”), visit traviscyrmusic.wix.com. For more information on Arootsakoostik, follow it on Facebook.