duke spirits presents the masters music series

Paul McDonald

The Space Between Genres

Paul McDonald’s music explores the space between genres. Rooted in hook-heavy rock & roll, alternative pop, southern soul, and modern-day folk, it's a sound that's every bit as diverse as its creator. He's an international road warrior. Along time solo artist. A former American Idol finalist.

A songwriter who's composed music for country singers (Jon Pardi), jam bands (Andy Frasco & The U.N.), platinum-selling film soundtracks (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn), and pop acts (Hanson). Throughout it all, Paul has saved his best material for his own albums, turning records like Modern Hearts into showcases for his raspy voice and boundary-bending music.

Years before the prime-time TV appearances that made him a household name, Paul grew up in Alabama. Raised on southern rock and Laurel Canyon folk, he spent his college years performing at southern baptist churches with Auburn University's gospel choir before fronting bands like The Grand Magnolias and Hightide Blues after his move to Nashville.

From Alabama to American Idol

"We were playing 200 shows a year in a van," he says of The Grand Magnolias. "We performed at Bonnaroo and Hangout. We toured with the Revivalists, MoonTaxi, and Drivin N Cryin — other bands who, like us, had strong followings in the Southeast. We were selling out 400-capacity venues. Then Idol happened."

On a show that sometimes prioritizes vocal ability over songwriting chops, Paul stood out for his combination of both skills. "You’ll always know who Paul McDonald is — out of a million singers, you’ll know him," gushed producer and American Idol Jimmy Iovine. "That’s so rare. It’s such a gift."

Catapulted into the mainstream, Paul resettled in Los Angeles, where the following years were a blur of highlights: a successful release with The Grand Magnolias (whose self-titled debut reached Number 3 on the iTunes Rock Chart); an Americana duo with his first wife, actress Nikki Reed; performances on The Tonight Show and Good Morning America; a cross-country arena tour with his Idol cohorts; a cameo on the TV show Parenthood.  

Paul was on top of the world. And when it all came crashing down — a divorce, a pair of shelved albums — he left Los Angeles and returned to his adopted home of East Nashville, where he recorded Modern Hearts with producer Jordan Lehning.

Modern Hearts

Laced with indie sensibilities, pop hooks, psychedelic turns, and alternative rock swagger, Modern Hearts earned him a new audience, as well as a record deal in the UK with Vacancy Records. This was real, organic growth driven not by a TV show, but by Paul's genuine ability to nod to his influences while pushing ahead into uncharted territory.

He hit the road again, rededicating himself to the grind, playing small American clubs one minute and marquee UK destinations like The Roundhouse the next. For Paul, it wasn't about the destination — it was about the journey to get there.

That journey continues with an upcoming album rooted in the raw, rootsy influence of classic songwriting and timeless American music.


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