Paul McDonald says "dude" a lot. No wonder he didn't last all that long on American Idol. Not to say that his stint on the nation's favorite dog-and-pony show wasn't transformative: In the course of a few short months, the Alabama native, erstwhile East Nashville resident and frontman of The Grand Magnolias went from slugging beers in Five Points to an arena tour, a famous fiancée (Twilight actress Nikki Reed) and over 100,000 Twitter followers. Still, the man who brought a Manuel rhinestone suit into living rooms across the country doesn't seem all that fazed, dude.
The Scene caught up with McDonald by phone in Salt Lake City, Utah, the day after the first performance of the American Idols Live! Tour. He was happy to talk producer meddling, high-rent touring and impulsive choices with his (former) hometown paper.
So, this tour must be a different experience for you.
Yeah. The past six years it was nothing but original material and roughing it the old-fashioned way. This time we're singing all cover songs, and it's a giganto production. And actually it's nice — last night I left the venue, and was like, "Wow, I don't have to load up all of my gear and put it in the van!" We go out and sign autographs. It's a whole lot different from loading out your stuff and then driving through the night in a stinky van to the next city. There's the best sound team. There's catering.
You say you're doing all covers. Was the subject ever brought up of doing an original?
No. Not on this tour. It's based on the TV show obviously, so it's kind of an extension of that. But I'm constantly writing. I remember they would come in and say, "Paul, have you learned your song for next week?" And I'd be like, "No, but check out this new one I wrote." And they'd say, "Dude, you're going to get kicked off the show!" Which I ended up doing. [Laughs] I'm planning on putting a record out shortly after the tour.
I wanted to ask you about singing [Ryan Adams'] "Come Pick Me Up." When I realized you were going to sing that, I thought, "That's so cool." And then my next thought was, "How is he going to sing that curse-heavy song?! What will the PG version sound like?"
I know, I know. We did that song with Don Was — he's a big producer who's worked with The Stones, and did an Old Crow [Medicine Show] record, and is doing John Mayer's next one. We actually tracked it with the original lyrics, and then we obviously had to turn it into the PG version for American Idol. But it was fun. I'm glad I got to do that. Jennifer Lopez was like, "Oh, wow. I didn't know who Ryan Adams was."
But Randy did get a chance to exhibit his knowledge, which is his favorite thing.
[Laughs] He mentioned Whiskeytown and Wilco. I was like, "Right on, man."
Another funny thing was your Manuel suit. People did not get it.
They had no clue. I bought that suit before going on tour with my band — The Grand Magnolias had just released an album in October. And after that I had to go out to do American Idol stuff. And I was like, "Now I get to wear this on TV!" [Laughs] I was trying to bring back the rhinestone suit, and give Manny and Manuel some exposure, because that's art that those guys are doing. They said it was like "mariachi band." Dude! This is the same guy that created for Elvis. He's worked on Steven Tyler's clothes. Who knows? At least it got out there. And a handful of people respected the suit.
How did you decide to audition?
We were doing a Midwest tour and our gig in Colorado got cancelled, so we drove back to Nashville and were there on a weekend, which we never were. Our guitar player at the time was dating a girl that had been on this reality show called So You Think You Can Dance. I think we were at 3 Crow the night before, and she was like, "You know American Idol is like five minutes down the street. And I know you might not dig it, but I tried out for So You Think You Can Dance, and it really helped my career out a whole lot." So I went down and sang an original song and "Tutti Frutti." For some odd reason they kept me around.
Did you ever have a moment in the process when you thought, "I shouldn't be doing this"?
There were actually a whole lot of those moments. I've been doing original art for so long, and it was completely outside my normal scene. All my friends had no idea what I was doing. They'd ask me to go grab a beer, and I'd say, "Dude, I'm on this TV show." Every week I'd go in there and say, hey, I'm going to do a Ryan Adams song, or Ray LaMontagne, or Avett Brothers, or Mumford and Sons. And the producers would say, "America doesn't know that song."
Are there any songs you look back at singing and just cringe?
They did make me do a couple dance numbers, and I had to sing a Pink song with a bunch of girls. That was kind of awkward.
You've had another big change in your life — you met your girlfriend, er, fiancée?
I did! That's one of the main reasons I'm headed out West. So yes, my life has changed completely. Last year I was touring in a 15-passenger van, now I'm singing in arenas and getting married. So I'm very happy that I tried out for the show. American Idol has changed my life for sure.
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