Paul McDonald sings during Wednesday night’s American Idol Summer Tour in San Jose.

SAN JOSE – Paul McDonald got some grins over the thought of American Idol … until about a year ago.

Today he’s really smiling about the show, in fact he’s probably laughing all the way to the bank.

“I never watched this show, never got into it. I joked about it,” McDonald said prior to the Idol Summer Tour concert here last Wednesday night. “One of the guys who was in our band, I think he won like third place one year (Josh Gracin, actually he finished fourth in Season 2 of Idol). I kidded him about it. I would say “Ah, American Idol, whatever…”

But things changed for McDonald.

“We were playing this show at Talladega Speedway and I thought. ‘This is crazy,’ cause he had all these little girls out like holding up posters of him. … which, of course, are the same posters that now I have.”

McDonald laughed at his own change of fortune. His eighth place finish this season left him with a nice payday as he gained a spot on the Idol Summer Tour with over 40 stops in huge venues around the country.

“This tour is all scripted out. You play the same thing night after night. you do the same cover song every night. But it is what it is,” McDonald explained.

McDonald’s 26 and on the other end of the age spectrum from most of the Top 11 finishers he is now touring with including 17-year old winner Scotty McCreery and 16-year old runnerup Lauren Alaina.

Did that age difference present problems for him?

“Dude I have to tell you I felt pretty much uncomfortable the entire time (during the show),” McDonald explained.

And more than that, not being able to be his self on stage was a hindrance.

“I was used to goin’ out and rockin’ stages and doin’ my own thing and being very confident with my own songs. And I could do what I wanted to do.

“I was uncomfortable with people kinda over my shoulder telling me exactly what to do. And not letting me be creative was something else. This just doesn’t feel right man. But I learned a whole lot of stuff from the show.

“The power of TV and that whole scene and now this Tour and we are getting to do arenas. Man that’s like Springsteen, Rolling Stones and now the American Idol kids.”

McDonald had done the small-town circuit prior to his spot on Idol and it, in part, will still be part of his future.

“I’ll probably go back with the band (Grand Magnolias) after awhile. We’re on the road and spreading the word of our music. We’ve been doing that for years. So we are planning on that. I told them I was going to do a solo album. I’ll test the waters. But I kinda want to get back to the band because the band was doing real well when I left for this.”

And after going through the Idol experience, is there anything he would like to see Idol executives change?

“One thing I would say would be to try to bring in more artists. It’s one of those things where the show is kinda scripted out and it is what it is.

“That’s one of the things that I had trouble with myself being an original artist and I would see something and say no and they would say you can’t do that you are gonna sing this Top 40 song. It kinda dumps you down to artist 3.0.

“But it would be kinda cool to do something like that (bring in more artists). I don’t know what kinda tricks they could do. I mean what are they gonna do, get another Jennifer Lopez?”

Having seen the other side of the life of a professional musician, McDonald has to laugh at some of the complaints he hears on occasion from his fellow Idols.

“I don’t know if they get it. I keep sticking it in their heads like guys this is a misbelief of what rock ’n roll is like. It’s not gonna be like this always. When a half-dozen of them are complaining I want to like shake em …

“We get to pretend like we are rock ’n roll stars for a summer. We are seeing what it’s like to play before thousands a night. After the show it won’t be like that unless you have like hit records. You don’t go from arenas and then back to arenas. You go back down to the club circuit and build your own name.

“I tell them to soak this all in cause you aren’t going to be cruising in six tour buses and a crew with catering. Normally you are loading in your own gear and hopping back in the van and cruising to the next city.”

And did he mean places that seat like 200 instead of the 12,000 he performed in front of here?

“Exactly man and that is the kind of scene I was in before all this. Doing it the old-fashioned way and paying your dues. To me this is like a vacation and I’m getting to see the arena scene. I’m playing before thousands of people a night … but I’m doin cover songs man … but I’m having fun.

“Still they are getting that experience and then later on down the line if you end up getting the opportunity to do this arena thing again, at least opening up for a larger act, you kinda have that experience, you know how to do it, you aren’t scared. You don’t look out there and think: ‘Oh, my god!’”