For this edition of “Where Are They Now”, we caught up with Alpena native Travis Kowalsky, banjo player from the folk band The Way Down Wanderers. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? Maybe you have even watched them perform at Folk Fest one year! 
The Way Down Wanderers, photography by Keith E. Cotton

The Way Down Wanderers, photography by Keith E. Cotton

Travis Kowalsky is 25 years old and a 2012 graduate of Alpena High School. Starting out with the guitar and mandolin, Travis started playing the banjo at 13 years old. This blossomed from playing with his family band into a full-time job traveling around the countryside with The Way Down Wanderers. Here is Travis’ story on growing up in Alpena and living the dream!

Who was your biggest role model growing up? 

“I am inspired by many people and many musicians. My biggest role models would have to be first and foremost, my parents Denise and Kenny Kowalsky, my brother Jared Kowalsky, and my grandpa Dan Fleck. I grew up listening to my grandpa play music a lot and it really inspired me. Secondly, my musical influences include Lloyd Douglas, one of the best musicians I’ve ever heard and who is from right around the Alpena area. Also, “Lindsey Lou and the Flatbellys”, which are a Michigan-based band who’s former bass player was really good friends with my brother. They were one of the main reasons I really started to like some of the folk type music that I play today. Lastly, one of my favorite bands, “The Infamous String Dusters”, who we had the honor of opening for not once, but twice! That was a great experience since I grew up listening to them all the time. They are all great, inspirational people as well.”

How do you think growing up in Alpena shaped you as a person and prepared you for life in the music industry? 

“Well, after trying out a bunch of different activities in school, such as sports, I thought I would try picking up an instrument instead. I really liked it and it interested me more than anything else I tried, especially because I grew up listening to my dad and brother play as well.”

What do you think it is about Alpena that inspires young musicians? 

“There is so much local talent and appreciation of music in Alpena. Many of the local bars and taverns encourage people to come in and play and sing with open mic night and karaoke. Also, a lot of younger people in this town get to grow up listening to their parents or peers play. There’s a lot of good people here in Alpena that are always willing to get together and jam, which is encouraging.”

How long have you been playing with The Way Down Wanderers? 

“I started playing with the band in October of 2015 after they saw me play with my family band (my parents and my brother) at the Thunder Bay Folk Festival here in Alpena. We played just before they did, they heard us, and they just so happened to be looking for a banjo player at the time!”

What is the typical day on the job like for you? 

“After waking up, generally we will hang out with whoever is hosting us the night prior if we don’t stay in a hotel.

Travis Kowalsky, photography by Amber Nicole Thiessan

Travis Kowalsky, photography by Amber Nicole Thiessan

Then we head to the venue, which is sometimes a bit of a drive. Upon arriving, usually between 3-5 p.m, we begin unloading equipment, setting it up, and follow up with a sound check. After this, we have a few hours to burn and we usually spend it walking around exploring and eating food. An hour before showtime we get the setlist together and practice a bit to warm up.  Then we play the show.  Afterward, we meet with fans, shake hands and sell merchandise. Lastly, we pack up all the equipment, load it, go to wherever we are staying for the night, hang out for a bit, and then do it all over again the next day.”

 What are you currently working on? Any new albums or an upcoming tour? 

“We just released our 2nd full-length album called “Illusions”. We are preparing for a busy summer of touring and promoting the album.”

Is there anything that surprised you about traveling and touring on the road?

“Seeing new places and experiencing different cultures. Also, the lifestyle of touring and traveling and the number of cool people I’ve met and friendships I’ve formed.”

When you’re on the road, what do you miss about Alpena the most? 

“Mostly my family, friends, my cat, and doing all kinds of outdoor activities. I love fishing, bow hunting, hiking, and swimming. I also miss being in the comfort of my own home and sleeping in my bed.”

Any plans to visit or play in Alpena in the near future? 

“I’m usually in Alpena every time we have a break. I really enjoy it here, which is why I make the 7-8 hour drive back and forth from Alpena to either Chicago or Peoria, IL.  The band will be playing at a fundraising event in Alpena on July 3rd and again at the Maritime Festival on July 4th.”

What advice do you have for young musicians growing up in a small town? 

“Keep playing and most importantly have fun with it. Whether it’s a career or just a hobby, find people to jam with and start something cool. Listen to a lot of music! I’ve found that most of the time I learn more from listening than playing. Also, I recommend getting into bluegrass. It has aspects of all genres incorporated in it and it’s easy to pick up on and find other people to play with. There are also a lot of festivals where you can meet people who are into the same music. Whether you’re a beginner or a professional, you can always join a jam.”

On behalf of the Alpena CVB and the Alpena community, we would like to extend a big congrats to Travis and the rest of The Way Down Wanderers on their successes and wish them luck on their future endeavors!

You can keep up with The Way Down Wanderers by following them on Facebook: The Way Down Wanderers

Click the link for their website >> The Way Down Wanderers