American Idol’s Paul McDonald Talks “Maggie May,” Ryan Adams

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This weekend, The American Idol Live tour rolled into Music City. We sat down with Paul McDonald, the Nashville rocker who made it all the way to the top eight on his raspy voice and goofy charm, as part of a joint press conference. McDonald, who fronts the band The Grand Magnolias and just got engaged to Twilight actress Nikki Reed, told us about being tethered to Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” and the night he stumped Jennifer Lopez with Ryan Adams’ music.

Where were you at this time last year?

Last year this time I was touring with my band across the country, doing all my original music in a 15 passenger van, trying to make it the old fashioned way. Trying to get our music on the local radio stations and stuff like that. It’s definitely a different scene these days. I was loading my gear out from the venues and opening up for bigger acts. Now we’re playing arenas, or I guess singing at arenas, we’re not really playing. But yeah, it’s fun. It’s unbelievable.

How does it feel to not be in a band?

TV is a whole completely different thing than the real live rock and roll band deal. You go in there and the band is already there, and everything’s set up and you just literally walk in. And you can’t be like, “Hey man, change up the lick.” It’s already set in stone how it’s going to be. So it’s easier. I guess for the show, there’s not much creativity on our end, we just sing the songs and it makes it easy for us. And the musicians are super pros. Easy-peasy man. You just gotta go out there and rock and roll and then get outta there.

So what are you singing on the tour?

I’m doing a Rod Stewart tune, “Maggie May.”

That’s one of my favorites of yours.

Yeah, that’s what they said when I went in there. “You’re gonna be rockin this one.” That was the crowd favorite for the show. It’s a good song and it gets everybody hyped up. They have me earlier on in the set so I feel like everyone’s still eating hot dogs and settling down. And I’m like “Come on! Get up! It’s a rock and roll show!”

Did you used to cover that song before the show?

No, in all honesty I hadn’t. My grandma loved Rod Stewart, but I had never done any of that stuff. Like I said, [The Grand Magnolias] were doing all original material and occasionally we’d do a Zeppelin cover or Rolling Stones or something like that. The reason I learned that song is cause I came in to Nashville and I sang “Tutti Frutti” as a joke for my audition song. I sang that and one of my original songs. I thought they’d be like, “Alright, get outta here,” and I could tell my grandparents, “Hey, I tried out for American Idol, now quit bugging me about it.” And they kept me around.

But the producers were like, “Hey for the next round, we want you to go home and learn “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart. And I was like, “Alright that’s cool.” So I went home and learned it and I never expected a year later that I’d be singing that song every night for like four months. So it’s funny, people will come up to me, like in the hotel earlier today, and be like “Hey, ‘Maggie May’-guy, sing that song!” And I’m just like, “Dude, I have like three albums out, come one man!” But it’s a good song and it gets everybody hyped up, so it’s fun.

Of all the mentoring that you’ve had on American Idol, what’s the best piece of advice that’s really stuck with you?

Be yourself. I was one of the older guys on the show, and I have a few albums under my belt, and I’ve been doing it. It’s hard man because you walk in there and Jimmy Iovine and these guys are telling you, “Hey man, you should do this and that.” And in your brain you’re going, “Oh my gosh man, he’s worked with legendary people, maybe I should listen to exactly what he’s saying.” Even though they only have a small chance to meet with you. It’s only like five minutes. I remember I walked in and I was like, “I kinda want to sing this Ray LaMontagne song.” And he was like “Nobody knows who that is, why don’t you sing James Blunt’s ‘You’re Beautiful.’” And I was like, “I don’t know about this, dude. You want me to go shirtless out there too?”

I’ve just learned to stick to your guns no matter what, because you can get intimidated really easily by a bunch of the mentors. As an artist, I’ve been doing it for so long I knew exactly who I was. They try to change you up a little bit with this and that. Don Was, a great producer, listened to my record, and was like, “Man, the record’s a whole lot cooler than what you’re doing on the show. Why don’t you show them this stuff?” And I was like, “I’m trying man!” Just stick to your guns, be yourself, be true to who are.

You auditioned in Nashville.

Yeah, Bridgestone Arena.

So now you’ve come full circle, huh?

I know, it’s crazy! I lived in East Nashville, so I literally just walked across the bridge to come try out for the show. I remember right before we left, I came and watched the Zac Brown show here. I was playing shows with Zac a few years ago where we were doing five or six hundred seat clubs. And I was like, “Look at how far he has come, man.” And here I am doing the same thing. It’s obviously not my own songs, but we’re playing in front of that many people every single night. It’s a dream come true, it really is.

Can you talk about the moment when you did the Ryan Adams song “Come Pick Me Up” on the show? And the judges were weird about it…

That was another thing that Jimmy Iovine and Don Was, it was an argument between those guys. It was one of those things where it was the week where you pick your idol. And Ryan Adams, I’ve always loved his writing style and this and that. I remember going in and the producers were like, “Bryan Adams, ‘Summer of 69’?” And I was like, “No man! Listen to all this stuff.”

I remember they tried to get me to change it to Bob Dylan and they wanted it to be Bob Dylan as my influence and they gave me a song and said, “You’re singing this, Bob Dylan is going to be your idol.” And I was just like, “Man, this is so fake and it’s not cool.” Don Was and I cut the track with the original lyrics in it and then we edited it down for the American Idol stuff. The American Idol watchers are a little different from the Bonnaroo or Coachella scene, so one of my goals was to broaden that fact. And just introducing Jennifer Lopez to Ryan Adams, I was like, “Success!” Even if I didn’t get the best version of that song. I remember that day I couldn’t hear at all, so I was like, “Ah, that probably sounded terrible.” But at least we got the Ryan Adams across.


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