Lots of people talk about the rewards of having gone to summer camp — the experiences you have, the friendships you make and the connections that can last a lifetime.
Most people get that from attending camp when they were kids.
Peter Mulvey was pushing 30 when he first arrived at the National Youth Science Camp in Pocahontas County.
The 50-year-old singer-songwriter, who performs Saturday night in the Walker Theater at the Clay Center for the Woody Hawley Series, said, “It was just a gig when I first got it.”
But it turned into a lot more.
Mulvey said he got the job because a friend was supposed to do it but couldn’t and wanted Mulvey to do it instead.
The friend told him, “You’re going to love it. The show is in a cave underneath West Virginia. You’re going to play for a bunch of graduating high school seniors at this science camp, so they’re, you know, geniuses.”
Power was provided to the cave by a gas-powered generator placed outside on the side of a hill.
Extension cords snaked down into the dark to provide lights and amplification.
“Now, there are battery-powered things. They just turn on some lights and a speaker,” he said.
But back then it seemed a little more primitive — and the kids had no idea what was coming.
Camp counselors just told the campers to dress warmly, and then they were led into the cave to listen to Mulvey sing.
As odd as it was for the singer, it was pretty weird for the audience, but they loved it. So did Mulvey, who has been coming back every summer for about 20 years.
“It is extraordinary,” he said. “They take these bright, young minds — two from every state and a couple of dozen international students — they bring them together and just show them that they’re not the only nerd in the world.”
The folksinger said it was important to encourage smart kids to be smart. We need smart kids, he said.
“Like any other adult who keeps an eye on the headlines, I’m a little worried about us,” he laughed, nervously.
He thought the camp was a great experience for the kids and not so bad for a middle-aged songwriter, who has questions.
At one visit to the camp, Mulvey struck up a conversation with an astrophysicist and asked him if humanity was alone or if maybe there was life out in the universe.
The scientist’s answer: Yes.
The astrophysicist believed there were entire civilizations out there, many of them, but all of them we were so spread out and separated by time and space that maybe none of them were fated to actually meet.
Intelligent life could only be a brief flicker in a universe that was over 13 billion years old.
That conversation became the basis for “Vlad the astrophysicist,” a spoken-word piece that helped get Mulvey invited to give a TED Talk.
“Not the TedX Talk in Vancouver,” he said. “But I did my talk in front of 5,000 people at the Kauffman Center in Kansas City, Missouri.”
It was still a pretty big deal and the talk, along with his visits to the science camp, helped him get the invitation to guest host “Mountain Stage.”
Mulvey is part of a list of fill-ins that includes bluegrass star Tim O’Brien, Tony Award-winning actor Michael Cerveris and, most recently, country star Kathy Mattea. But, so far, he’s the only guest host not from West Virginia.
The songwriter thought it might have helped that he’d also been a guest on the show a few times and had some experience hosting folk festivals.
Hosting “Mountain Stage” wasn’t easy.
“I was surprised at how steep the learning curve was,” Mulvey said. “I was deer in the headlights the entire recording process. They only way I got through without my eyebrows getting singed off was because of the crew and the house band. They carried me across.”
Larry Groce, the regular host of the show, makes it look easy, he added.
Mulvey was looking forward to returning to West Virginia.
While the Woody Hawley Series wouldn’t be the National Science Camp and the Clay Center is the furthest thing from a cave, he said he was excited about sharing some music.
He has a lot. Mulvey has recorded around 20 albums.
“I don’t know what I’ll be playing yet,” he said. “But it will be fun.”