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At 11, she may be yacht rock singer Michael McDonald’s youngest superfan


Paisley Gardner had dreamed about having an in-person conversation with her musical idol for months, but when the moment arrived this week, she was too star-struck to speak coherently.

The Des Moines 11-year-old first heard the singer on the radio two years ago and was captivated by his “wispy” voice. She expressed her love for him at a concert and cried when she met him virtually earlier this summer.

But Paisley’s peers haven’t even heard of her idol, 71-year-old Michael McDonald, whose yacht rock songs were most popular in the 1970s and ’80s.

Paisley attended the best concert of her life Sunday, when she saw McDonald and the Doobie Brothers perform in Lincoln, Neb. She met McDonald backstage before she sang along to some of her favorite songs among fans decades older than her.

“He’s my ultra, ultra favorite,” Paisley told The Washington Post.

In the summer of 2021, Tony Gardner was driving his daughter to his mother’s house while listening to Yacht Rock Radio on SiriusXM. As Gardner was turning a corner, the radio hosts said a McDonald song was in the queue. That reminded Paisley, who hadn’t heard of the artist, that she was hungry and wanted McDonald’s for lunch.

“No, it’s not that McDonald’s,” Gardner recalled telling his daughter. “It is Michael McDonald.”

So Paisley listened to McDonald’s 1982 song “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near).” Paisley told CBS earlier this summer that McDonald sounded like “an angel.”

After that introduction, Paisley asked to turn up the radio whenever one of McDonald’s songs was playing. She sang along from the passenger or back seat. Instead of following her friends’ favorite artists — Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Harry Styles — she listened to McDonald while relaxing in her room.

While Gardner did not expect Paisley to become a superfan, he wasn’t surprised his daughter enjoyed yacht rock. When Paisley was in the womb, Gardner and his wife, Jessica, played music from that genre to calm her down. Paisley fell asleep to those songs as a baby.

“She’s always been surrounded by music,” Gardner said.

Paisley imagined McDonald was in his 40s and had blond hair. She even drew a pencil sketch of what she imagined his face looked like.

But last summer, Paisley searched for McDonald on Google and saw he had white hair and wrinkles. In distress, she ran to her mom’s room crying, “No!”

She still listened to his music, and in June, Gardner surprised Paisley with tickets to a Doobie Brothers concert at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. A security guard there joked that Paisley seemed much too young to be in attendance but was surprised when Paisley said she was there to see McDonald.

Early in the concert, Paisley screamed, “I love you, Michael!” Adults sitting near her laughed and looked at her, prompting Paisley to reaffirm a few seconds later: “I do.”

As McDonald walked off the stage after the show, Paisley stood at the railing yelling, “Michael!” He looked at Paisley, waved and responded, “Thank you.” As Paisley and her dad walked out of the stadium, Paisley was in shock.

“He talked to me,” she told her dad. “I’m so honored.”

Paisley and her dad waited outside for McDonald to walk to his bus. When he emerged about 30 minutes later, Paisley handed him a Doobie Brothers poster.

“I was up there yelling at you,” Paisley told him. “You waved at me and everything.”

McDonald signed the poster in black Sharpie and thanked her for coming to the show. Paisley then extended her right hand for a handshake.

In July, Paisley was speaking to CBS reporter Steve Hartman on Zoom about her McDonald obsession when an unexpected guest joined the call. McDonald appeared on Paisley’s screen.

“How are ya, darlin’?” he said.

Hartman had arranged for McDonald to surprise Paisley, who erupted in tears. McDonald then invited her to another concert in August.

On Aug. 17, Gardner handed Paisley his phone and asked her to read an email from McDonald’s manager. It was a written invitation to attend a Doobie Brothers concert of their choosing.

“We’re going this weekend,” Gardner told Paisley and her 8-year-old sister, Joplin.

“No way,” Paisley said after processing the news for about 25 seconds. “Thank you.”

Paisley, Joplin and their parents drove about 2½ hours on Sunday to the Pinewood Bowl Theater for an 8 p.m. show. When the family arrived, multiple spectators who recognized Paisley from Hartman’s interview pointed at her and said, “That’s the girl,” Gardner recalled.

They were sitting in their seats in the 12th row before McDonald’s manager asked them to come backstage. Paisley was shocked when she saw McDonald and gave him a hug.

Paisley framed the drawing she had made, predicting how McDonald would look before seeing his picture, and gave it to him. McDonald said he’d put it in his office, Paisley said.

The family returned to their seats about 10 minutes later to enjoy the roughly two-hour show. Paisley’s favorite number was “What a Fool Believes.”

Paisley ran to the railing as McDonald walked offstage and yelled for him. Ed Toth, the Doobie Brothers’ drummer, nudged McDonald and pointed to Paisley. McDonald blew Paisley a kiss, she said, and told her, “I’ll see ya next time.”

When Paisley started sixth grade on Wednesday, she got to tell her classmates about her eventful summer. Through Paisley’s experiences, they finally know who McDonald is.

POST AUTHOR: Kyle Melnick

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