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Alabama Artist and 'American Idol' Alum Paul McDonald Headlines the Paducah Lowertown Arts & Music Festival

The Lowertown Arts & Music Festival will be held in Paducah's historic Lowertown Arts District this weekend on Friday, May 10, and Saturday, May 11. This year's lineup includes headlining rock artist Paul McDonald, an Alabama native who gained notoriety when he was a finalist on American Idol just over a decade ago. Morning Edition host Daniel Hurt speaks to McDonald ahead of his upcoming performance.

"I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, and while my folks are not musicians, I grew up with a lot of music around the house," McDonald begins. "As a kid, I was constantly listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, a lot of stuff. My mother was big on Joni Mitchell." McDonald cites Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Tom Petty as additional inspirations. "It really is just like Tom Petty. How do I become Tom Petty?" He laughs.

McDonald's father bought him a guitar when he was 15 years old, and the songwriter says he never put it down. "That's where it all started," he explains. "I guess I never saw myself as that. I was just such a fan of music. I never was like, 'Oh, I can be that person.' My parents being a psychologist and an occupational therapist, as a kid, I didn't think, 'Oh, being a musician is a career path.' I didn't know what kind of creativity and doors would open for me."

"I turned into the kid who started bringing an acoustic guitar to every party with him," McDonald continues. "Even in high school English class, we'd have to recite poems and do certain things. I would somehow find a way to convince my teacher to let me come in and perform the poems on guitar. As I continued to grow, I went to college. I really had no clue how it all worked in terms of getting gigs and any of that kind of thing. Someone saw me play at a house party and said, 'Hey, would you like to come down to the bar and play? We'll pay you money, we'll give you free drinks. You've got to play for four hours.' And I was like, 'Wait, that's a thing? I get to play music for hours? And I get free drinks and money?'"

McDonald said that eventually, balancing a gigging schedule and college became too much to maintain. So, he took a chance and decided to focus on his music career instead. "I was majoring in biomedical sciences, and we would be driving to Atlanta to play the Peachtree Tavern opening for the Zac Brown Band. Then, I'd have to drive back home and have a genetics class at 7 in the morning. I just realized this was going to be really difficult to do. I ended up dropping out of school with two classes left before I graduated to pursue this band. We were doing some cool tours, doing festivals like Bonnaroo, and then I moved to Nashville."

After several years of performing, McDonald changed the name of his band to the Grand Magnolias and moved to Los Angeles to try out for American Idol in 2011. He placed 8th in the nationally televised competition, which McDonald said gave him a much better understanding of the music industry on a national level. The show also helped reveal which direction he'd like to take his music.

"I was singing Rod Stewart songs," he says. "You weren't allowed to do your own songs back in those days. It was an eye-opening experience in terms of going from a 15-passenger van, playing small rock clubs throughout the Southeast, to all of a sudden [being] at Interscope Studios in Los Angeles with Mary J. Blige [with] all these brilliant producers doing late-night talk shows. Because of that, I learned what I wanted from music, and I at least know how to navigate the dark side of the industry — whatever comes from those opportunities to give back and use it for the greater good.

McDonald says he is excited about headlining the Lowertown Arts & Music Festival and hopes to be a brief reprieve from the world everyone is dealing with. "I hope they forget all their problems," McDonald says. "I hope that they're inspired and uplifted by the experience. What this band tries to bring is really, you know, positivity and joy and a celebration of being alive."

Paul McDonald closes the Lowertown Arts & Music Festival on the main stage on Saturday, May 11, at 9 pm. For more information on Paul McDonald, visit his website.

For more information on the Lowertown Arts & Music Festival, including a full schedule, food and parking information, and more, visit the LTAMF website.

Hurt is a Livingston County native and has been a political consultant for a little over a decade. He currently hosts a local talk show “River City Presents”, produced by Paducah2, which features live musical performances, academic discussion, and community spotlights.
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