ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
And this is the music of singer/songwriter Peter Mulvey.
(SOUNDBITE OF PETER MULVEY)
PETER MULVEY: (Singing) God bless you Dwight D. Eisenhower as I stand next to the truck stop shower, watching our bright destiny unfold. Now your highway rolls from here to gone. This land we've laid our hands upon and Sir, it is a sight just to behold.
SIEGEL: Peter Mulvey is a 21st Century troubadour. Without a doubt the Internet helped spread the word about his music but Peter Mulvey makes his living the old-fashioned way. He travels from town to town performing in bars and coffeehouses from Anchorage to Dublin.
Reporter Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers traveled with Peter Mulvey and got a lesson about the economics of being a troubadour.
: On a bright Sunday afternoon, Peter Mulvey is in his customary place - behind the wheel of a car with his guitar and amp and boxes of CDs in the trunk.
MULVEY: This is the inaugural tour for my new car. My previous car was a Chevy Prism, and it just died in my driveway at 417,000 miles. I bought it new. I put all those miles on it myself.
: Mulvey left home in Milwaukee only two days ago, but has already driven 1,000 miles on a tour that will take him to Virginia, Maine, Michigan and many points between.
MULVEY: I get paid to travel and sleep in hotel rooms and fly in airports. I play music for free.
: Last night Peter Mulvey played in Oswego, New York, up on Lake Ontario. And today's first stop is at a youth center in the tiny town of Camillus. They guy who runs the center has for years brought teenagers to Mulvey's shows, so Mulvey offered to do a free workshop.
MULVEY: (Singing) When I was solid as a smokescreen, when I was bluer than a tree, all of this has changed and now I'm faster than a clam. I'm sober as a church key. I'm just as happy as I am.
: A few dozen high school and college kids listen intently to Mulvey's dense and witty song. He offers advice to aspiring songwriters and answers questions about life on the road.
MULVEY: Every day is like this little story and there's like some little gem of a detail. Like today I woke up in Oswego, New York, and I went downtown to get a sandwich and there was an antique cannon, a piece of artillery, like in front of the town hall and somehow had stuck a daisy into the barrel of it. I loved that.
: A few hours later, Mulvey is back on the highway, heading toward tonight's show at a place called the Blue Frog Coffeehouse. He plays around 150 gigs like this each year and earns most of his income from the $10 or $15 people pay at the door. Even in the age of digital cable and the Internet, Mulvey insists the live music circuit will never die out.
MULVEY: Because here's the thing, I mean, we're going to go down to this joint tonight, to the Blue Frog, which I've never been to, and I'm going to sing some songs and try to lose myself in those songs. I'm going to tell some jokes. And if it all went right, we're all going to go home a little more in touch and in tune.
And there's no other way to do that. I mean there's only one real way, I think, to make music do what music was invented to do, which is to touch people and bring them in tune. And that's to play it for them in a room.
(SOUNDBITE OF PETER MULVEY)
MULVEY: (Singing) The street that you live on is a brush stroke on a canvas and you'd see that if you turned around. The sky fell last Wednesday and broke into pieces, pieces of the sky on the ground. But it's nothing new, it happens each day. And everyone turn, turn away.
: Technology does support Peter Mulvey's life on the road. He's constantly on his Blackberry, checking email and baseball scores and his calendar. Fans track his activities on petermulvey.com and MySpace and trade concert tapes at mulveyfan.org.
Adam Hockerman(ph) is in the audience tonight and recently made a 300 mile trip to Boston to catch Mulvey in concert.
ADAM HOCKERMAN: Yeah, I evangelize quite a bit. You know, brought out at least four or five friends between those two shows in Boston. You know so, yeah. I've done quite a bit of evangelizing. I feel very strongly about Peter's music. He's just a fantastic lyricist. His songs really speak to me personally.
MULVEY: (Singing) Hoping is the mighty, say a word they mean. If you're looking for the truth, it's down at the pond. All you need to turn is the fixtures on.
: Mulvey's show mixes originals with covers ranging from U2 to Hoagy Carmichael. One of his trademarks is tuning the guitar strings way down to play deep rock grooves.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)
: After the show, Mulvey hangs out to chat and sign CDs. On average he sells about 4,000 CDs a year, 40 percent of them right off the stage. Between CD sales and the cover charge, Mulvey might come away from a gig with anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. But much of that money goes right back out for gas and hotels and fees to his agent, manager and publicist.
MULVEY: The cash flow situation in my business is so weird. A long time ago I became the highest-grossing, lowest-netting member of my family. My family are social workers and public school teachers, by and large, so I had to really work hard at the second part of that.
: Over the last dozen years, Mulvey figures he's driven three-quarters of a million miles and played 2,000 gigs. And he pictures himself still doing 100 plus gigs a year until retirement age.
MULVEY: I will say I'm 36, and if you're in that position where all of the life you can remember you've been doing this thing, even if it's something that you love, right around now you kind of ask yourself - what did you learn? And I generally, I mean I guess the answer that comes to me is, I don't know, leave early, travel fast and keep a clean windshield. Stick to music. Music is pretty deep and pretty good for the spirit. And get some fresh air. Pack some apples.
: It's 11:00 p.m. and Mulvey heads to the New York Throughway to drive a few more hours toward his next gig.
For NPR News, this is Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers.