From the very beginning, Paul McDonald seemed like a duck out of water on this year’s “American Idol.” The Alabama native has fronted his own band for five years, moving to Nashville in 2010, renaming them The Grand Magnolias and even releasing an album earlier this year, reaching #16 on Billboard’s Heatseekers tally and #3 on the iTunes Rock Albums chart.
At 26, he’s 10 years older than contestants like Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina, and his grizzled, sandpapery voice got a good workout on songs like Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” and Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll” in his custom-made, Nudie-style rose-and-thorns embroidered suits.
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Last night, he urged his fellow finalists, as well as his fans, that he’d be OK, and he was the same easy-going, gracious guy he was on camera at his exit press conference this morning as the first guy to be eliminated from this year’s finalists. He’s hoping to continue developing original material—he got to perform his own “American Dreams” on the show—and cited as current favorites Mumford & Sons, The Black Keys and Ray LaMontagne. Like Pia Toscano, and unlike most of his fellow competitors, McDonald already has a career, and the sooner he was eliminated, the quicker he can get back and take advantage of the momentum from being on the show. He also revealed he’s “officially” dating “Thirteen” actress/screenwriter Nikki Reed (“she’s super-cool”) and credits Crest Advance Vivid White toothpaste (and not drinking coffee or soda) for his gleaming white teeth.
“My whole thing was to branch out and let people know what I do normally,” he said. “It made me happy they let me sing my own song on the show. Original music comes off more real because it is real.
“When I tried out, this whole thing was just for fun. I never expected to get this far. I wish I had covered some of the more obscure artists I wanted to. I didn’t feel comfortable on-stage much of the time because it wasn’t me up there. But it was an amazing learning experience. It opened up my brain to recreating these classic songs and turning them into something new. My main goal is to make music that lasts and people enjoy, to write about real stuff.”
McDonald admitted there was a generation gap between him and some of the other “Idol” hopefuls. “It was really cool because I hadn’t hung out with 16-year-old kids in 10 years,” he laughed. “It made me feel like I was back in high school. It blew my mind how professional they were. Because when I was that age, I wasn’t thinking anything about this kind of stuff. I tried to be kind of an older mentor to them, even though I got kicked off before they did. I was teaching them how to play piano, write songs and mold themselves into artists, not just sing other people’s songs.”
McDonald admitted he’s worried his “American Idol” exposure will hurt him in his quest for indie credibility.
“That was one of my main concerns,” he said. “I’ve always wanted, in my career, to have the respect of the music community. Other artists have told me that I got dropped right at the best point. It’s a tough call, but I think I can bridge that gap. I’m going to try to cut a great album, and if I do that, it’s the main thing. ‘American Idol’ has done nothing but help. I had no expectations of anything. I was just taking it one day at a time. After Pia got kicked off, I realized it was anybody’s game. I was just happy to be there with that group of talented folks.”
In the wake of last night’s results show, the other big topic among “Idol” watchers was the sizzling performance of Casey Abrams and Haley Reinhart on “Moanin’,” a song originally by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. It was arguably the best showing by either, and fueled Internet reports of the pair’s fledgling romance. With Randy Jackson’s enthusiastic rave, it was the first time this season a results show performance could seriously impact next week’s voting. Reinhart was in the bottom three this week, while Casey was famously saved by the judges three weeks ago.