By Andy Steinke, Dells Events
To his children, he’s dad. To his friends, he’s Kevin. But to out-of-town visitors, he’s Campfire Kevin.
For the past 19 years Kevin Murphy, a 47-year-old Baraboo resident, has been singing songs at a number of resorts in Wisconsin Dells and Lake Delton. And for the last 18 years, he’s been known as Campfire Kevin because of where those songs can be heard.
His song list reads like an out-of-whack jukebox and his crowds rarely, if ever, reach triple digits. But his family-oriented show, complete with a washboard for the kids and sing alongs for everyone, is entertaining.
“I’d say I have 200 to 300 songs that I rely on,” Murphy said. “It’s a range from Bob Dylan to Barney.”
Murphy’s repertoire includes songs like “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” “Bingo,” “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” “The Wheels on the Bus” and a long list of Elvis songs.
He started singing part-time at Christmas Mountain Village in 1989 when he responded to an ad for a western country singer.
The resort had been doing a horse-drawn dinner carriage at the time, and they wanted someone to sing as well. Before long, the resort asked if Murphy could play his acoustic guitar on Sunday nights at the family campfire.
Murphy said he tried playing at bars, but he enjoyed performing for families more. He said seeing children dance and sing to his music reminds him of his own four children, who are his inspiration.
“For the kids I like to do ‘Old McDonald,’” he said. “I do a good cow and Shrek’s Donkey too.”
This summer he’s playing at Christmas Mountain Village on Sundays and Wednesdays, at Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park on Tuesdays and Fridays and at Sunset Bay Resort on Thursdays and Saturdays. This month he is also playing at Sandstone Pub and Grill on County N on Saturday nights before his Sunset Bay Resort show.
Murphy played for a few years at the Sunset Bay Resort in the early 1990s before he was dropped from its schedule. This January, owner, Dawn Baker, ran into Murphy at a party and asked him to come back.
“He had a lot of gigs going on, and we didn’t get that big of a response, so we decided we didn’t need him,” Baker said. “As soon as he was gone, people came up and said, ‘You used to have that campfire guy.’”
Murphy said he wasn’t sure if the gig was going to work out, since Lake Delton drained before he started playing at the resort.
“I didn’t think I’d be playing there this summer, but she was gracious enough to have me keep coming,” he said. “My first paying job was Thursday night after the lake emptied.”
Baker said this year has been rough, and the resort is trying to make the best of a bad situation. But it is doing whatever it can to keep customers coming.
“We are trying to keep people happy, and Kevin keeps them happy,” she said. “He has a family-oriented show, and that’s what we’re about. We aren’t a big waterpark hotel.”
Even though he brings his own marshmallows and roasting sticks, Baker said his show isn’t hokey.
When he plays at the Sunset Bay Resort, Murphy said Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” always comes to mind when he looks at the lake bed. One part of the song rings true more than the rest: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/ Or is it something worse/That sends me down to the river/Though I know the river is dry.”
When he’s not singing part-time, Murphy is a bricklayer, most recently in Whitewater – an hour and a half drive from his home in Baraboo.
“I decided in March that I was going to book as many campfires as I could because of the gas prices and the economy,” Murphy said. “My full-time job was taking me to Whitewater everyday, and I didn’t anticipate that back in March.”
After the summer, Murphy’s season usually starts to wind down, but this year he said he’d like to keep playing.
He said he’ll continue singing once or twice per week at Christmas Mountain Village, his unofficial “home base,” until it gets too cold to play outside anymore. The Sandstone Pub and Grill also showed some interested in a weekly show.
Murphy said he also relies on Christmas parties.
“I’m looking to do some jobs with Santa Claus this winter playing Christmas music,” he said.
When his bricklaying days are complete, Murphy said he’ll still be singing and playing the guitar.
“The guitar playing is something I truly enjoy doing, especially this style, because it’s a unique niche” he said. “It’s a fine way to make a little extra money playing music.”