by Leah Willis
Tall Paul (born John Paul Bobal) is the kind of guy you'd call for a summer road trip to the beach. He wears tie-dye T-shirts, shoots expensive tequila, and at 6'8â”, the ladies can't help but stare up at him through their coyly batting lashes. What's more is Paul's always smilingâ"that peaceful, easy, full-face glow, characteristic of people who are genuinely content.
And why shouldn't he be? Paul's spent the better part of 20 years making a living with this guitar. He's played shows with folk-country star Kathy Mattea, opened for Jimmy Buffet and The Doobie Brothers, and permeated the CD collections of everyone from college kids and Parrot Heads to bikers and suburban moms. You may know him from his collaborations with local harmonica genius, Michael â“Crawdaddyâ” Crawley.
And Paul makes it look so easy, with simple, solid musicianship and a bright, almost conversational singing voiceâ"clear, with a mellow energy, like a friend might have when recounting a particularly good day. At any live show, the audience participates as though the show depends on it: shouting requests, banging out percussion with empty ashtrays and beer bottles, and singing backup on both covers and originals.
The living legend that is Tall Paul is so ingrained in local music lore that many people don't realize that Paul doesn't live here, and never has. He commutes from Nashville for his weekly Knoxville gigs.
Paul set up shop in Nashville many moons ago, with the intention to make it big: â“When I was in college, I had the design to go to graduate school and teach music. At some point I decided that I was going to try to make it as a professional musician. It made sense to go some place where there was a music industry. There's local legends in every little town, so my idea was to move to Nashville, where I could do something more than just be a local guy. If I could establish myself as a musician in Nashville, then I could say I'm successful because the level of musicianship is so much higher there.â”
Paul's commitment to sonic quality earned him a nod from American Idol winner Carrie Underwood. She came across Paul's first record as she researched songs, preparing to cut her own debut album. Paul's performance of the uptempo country-esqe â“Some Heartsâ” caught her attention, and was selected as her title track. But contrary to myth, Paul didn't write itâ"songwriter Dianne Warren didâ"though that doesn't quell Paul's excitement that Ms. Underwood listened to his music in the first place.
Yet mention of Paul's devoted fans elicits an equally enthusiastic response: â“I have the most loyal, most interesting fans,â” he offers. â“Some of my closest friends I've met through music, through seeing them week after week, for years, at shows.â”
Much like his fanbase, Paul is unarguably loyal to his tropical/surf-meets-pop/rock-country style. And no big-label record deal can lure him towards a more commercially marketable sound. â“I've got friends who've tried really hard to be a record company act, and they've had varying degrees of success,â” Paul explains. â“Some go out under the auspices of a record company and get totally demoralized and used up musically and emotionally. Some become bonafide artists, like Phil Vassar. Then I've got friends who are sidemen, going out playing backup under somebody else's popularity. It's neat that people can make a living in so many different ways. And I would love to have a record company take a record that I've made and promote it. But I don't think I produce a sound that a big-name record company can market, because I've got so many influences, and I'm too stubborn to change my style. I'm not a typical rocker or a country-western star. The guys in suits, they don't always know what's good but they know what sells. But there's a shelf life to that kind of music, and I don't want that.â”
All said, Paul's a glass-half-full-of-tequila kind of guy, and label or no, he intends to maintain his busy schedule of 200 shows a year: â“I've been able to say, my whole adult life, that I'm self-employed and doing what I love. I'm very happy, and not actively trying to get a record deal. Even the independents on the smaller labels have guidelines they have to follow that I don't necessarily have to worry about.â”
Who knows?: Maybe Paul's forthcoming record, Voodoo Doll , holds the breakout hit that'll have record companies and Carrie Underwood drooling for rights. You'll find out when the CD's released later this summer. Until then, the shots are on you.
WHO: Tall Paul WHEN: Sundays, 8:30 p.m., and Mondays, 10 p.m., respectively WHERE: Quaker Steak & Lube and Charlie Pepper's (on the Strip)
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