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Travis Brooks performs on stage. (Photo courtesy of Travis Brooks)

Former Fresno State student performs at The Big Fresno Fair

By Christian Mattos and Hayley Salazar 

A musical act at The Big Fresno Fair this year is a familiar face. Local musician and former Fresno State student Travis Brooks will play at the fair through Oct. 15.

Brooks, a Hanford native, performed with his blues band Saltwater last Friday at the fair, and performs his solo act at the fair’s Blue Moon Yosemite Station each day.

“I really enjoy playing blues and folk music. That’s what I’ve really stuck to, and my original music is very rooted in blues and folk music, as well,” said Brooks, 33.

During his solo gigs, Brooks plays the guitar, harmonica and a homemade stomp box as a kick drum. He also performs with other musicians in the Valley, playing the banjo, slide guitar and electric guitar.

For performances at places like the Fresno Fair, Brooks tends to play more cover songs people are familiar with, and he throws in a few original pieces during the set, he said. He sings songs from artists like Muddy Waters, Neil Young and Tom Petty.

One of Brooks’ favorite songs to perform is “I Can’t Be Satisfied” by Muddy Waters, which he plays at an upbeat tempo. He also enjoys playing his original song “Woman With No Name,” a folk-country tune that follows a man waiting in a bar for an unnamed lover.

Brooks said he loves the reaction he gets from people when he performs, no matter how small or large the crowd is.

“The feeling stays the same, and that’s why I feel like it’s good for me to keep doing it,” he said. “If the fire isn’t really dying, I might as well just keep going until it starts to dim down a little bit. Then I might change my course.”

Brooks was excited to be brought back to the fair this year after the “changing of the guard” transition the Fresno Fair experienced when it decided to hire acts in house rather than going through an entertainment agency, he said.

He said he spent a lot of time emailing people, trying to make sure his name would come up in the lineup of performances at the fair. He contacted the right people to be hired again.

“I play pretty much everywhere and anywhere I can,” Brooks said. “I’ve always been really, really enthralled with music. It’s something that’s always been a part of my life.”

Brooks first became interested in music in elementary school, where he was required to take music classes.

“[In fourth grade] I had a really good music teacher, and he changed my life forever in a really good way,” he said. “He kind of made me fall in love with music, and I’ve been playing ever since.”

Brooks said he played the trumpet and French horn throughout high school. He went on to attend Fresno City College and studied music composition before transferring to Fresno State.  He focused on the French horn, learning and growing as a musician, and spent two years as a member of the Bulldog Marching Band.

“I’ll never forget that time that I had there,” he said. “That’s really important for me. I don’t really promote too much that I’m a Fresno State [alumnus], but I probably should. It’s really cool. I hope that I represent the school in a positive way.”

Though he said he hasn’t touched a French horn in over a decade, he thinks about maybe picking up the instrument again when he’s a little older and has more free time.

Brooks gave a laugh when asked what inspires his lyrical content.  

“It’s funny because a lot of times, I read something or I see something that really inspires me,”  he said. “I’ve had a pretty simple life, nothing too extravagant, nothing too crazy, so my life is a little boring, so I can’t really say that I’ve gained from personal knowledge.”

While Brooks said that he had his “fair share of heartache,” most of his life has been positive. Unlike the many musicians who draw from the negative aspects of their lives, Brooks says he focuses on experiences of many aspects.  

The writing process for Brooks involves thinking of an idea and finding the right words to convey that idea.

Inspiration for the tracks on “Blackwater Flow,” the debut album by his band Saltwater, came from the time spent in Mississippi during his early 20s.

“That’s where I really learned to understand and love the blues music,” he said. “Just learning about the culture [of Mississippi] and the vibe that they have and the types of music that they play all the way down to the dingy, grungy bars that I played in. All sorts of things kind of gave me that inspiration to write that record in that way.”

It was after college and his time in Mississippi that Brooks came back to the Riverdale-Hanford area of his youth, where he met his wife and settled down.

“Right about that time, I was very unhappy with the job that I was at, and I was already playing music on the weekends and stuff,” he said. “I just talked to my wife and told her that I think I could do this full time, and she’s been very supportive of that and said, ‘Yeah, you’ve got six months to do it,’ and that was 2 1/2 years ago.”

Brooks said that while he does some traveling for shows, he chooses to remain rooted in the Central Valley community where his family and wife’s family live.

Though Hanford may lack a variety of live-music venues, Brooks, along with other musicians from Hanford, is working to create a scene within the community. It doesn’t matter the music or genre they play. It’s just about supporting local musicians, he said.

“[Local musicians] do it for us. They do it for you. They do it for me, for the love of music, and that’s why I truly think that the more that people stick around in their scene and create that scene together, the better off a community will be,” Brooks said.

Brooks has a simple piece of advice for students looking to break into the industry: Friends and fellow musicians are probably the best thing musicians can have in the music world.

“For me, I would tell them that you just gotta get out there and put yourself out there no matter what, no matter what you think, what you may think about yourself or what you may think of what other people may think of you,” he said.

Finding a fitting atmosphere to play in is also a factor Brooks considers as a musician.

“Goldstein’s [Mortuary & Delicatessen in Fresno] is probably one of my favorite places,” he said. “I like that there’s no TVs there. When people are there, they’re there either to listen to one another or listen to live music. For me, that’s a really solid environment for a musician like myself to get somewhere and be a part of.”

Brooks said he also enjoys playing at Lush, a small wine bar in Hanford because, like Goldstein’s, there’s no TV.

“The environment that you get with not just some bright screen playing live sports or whatever the case may be, it’s much more fitting for an atmosphere for a musician to come in and do their thing,” Brooks said.

An audience’s ability to identify truth and reality in people is something Brooks finds spectators latch onto during a performance.

“I think people are always striving for something real in their lives,” he said. “And when they can sit in a bar with no TVs and then a guy comes out there and just pours his heart out, it really, truly can take ahold of anybody.”