The tall boy from the small town never imagined he’d meet the President, mingle with music legends and perform in sold-out stadiums.
At 49, Paul “Stretch” Diethelm ’03 looks back on the long and winding road from Watertown, Minn., through St. Cloud State, to an award-winning career as a guitarist, songwriter and producer.
Along the way are moments spectacular, sublime, serendipitous and silly.
It’s 1996. Diethelm and his pals, Jay O’Donnell ’92 and Mike Zeleny, are working the Central Minnesota bar circuit as Slip Twister, occasionally opening for regional blues-rock star Jonny Lang. Their hard-scrabble existence is epitomized by a band van that once lost its forward gears, requiring them to drive backwards to a gig.
In what seems like an eye-blink, Diethelm is hired to play guitar in Lang’s band, and begins gigging in theaters and appearing on talk shows such as NBC’s “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”
Diethelm realizes he is strapped to a rocket ship. Lang’s 1997 major-label debut with A&M Records goes gold, then platinum. Performances for other top talk shows follow, including David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Regis and Kathie Lee.
Then, for two-months, Lang opens for Aerosmith, one of America’s best-selling rock bands. Diethelm’s small Fender amp is replaced by a two, massive rigs, courtesy of a Hughes & Kettner endorsement deal. Vans give way to plush touring buses and jets.
Lang is signed to the Rolling Stones tour and Diethelm finds himself onstage in Nuremburg, Germany, at the infamous stadium venue for Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party rallies. The crowd is 102,000.
Lang’s next album includes a track co-written by Diethelm. The album is in final design and the record label is calling Lang at the airport. Just 17-years-old, Lang turns to his entourage for advice on the new album title. Diethelm’s wife, Julie (Kleinschmidt) Diethelm ’93 ’03, suggests using the title from her husband’s song. “Wander This World” earns Diethelm, and bandmate Bruce McCabe, songwriting awards from SESAC performing rights organization. The album by the same name goes platinum and earns a Grammy nomination.
Diethelm supports hundreds of Lang’s performances of “Wander This World,” including a White House performance for President Bill Clinton.
He meets various and sundry guitar virtuosos, including B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Eddie Van Halen, Billy Gibbons, John Fogerty, Jeff Beck and Rick Nielsen.
At a radio station promotion in Detroit, rock guitarist and hunting-rights advocate Ted Nugent brandishes a handgun in the studio. When Lang’s voice fails at Aloha Stadium, outside Honolulu, Diethelm splits lead vocal duties with McCabe. At a Halloween party in Boston, Diethelm hangs out with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, who is dressed in drag. The night produces photos Diethelm can only show to close friends and family.
When his run with Lang ends in 2004, Diethelm segues into Central Minnesota and Twin Cities bar scenes that are in serious decline. He questions his ability to play music full-time. The career that took flight in 1983 with the St. Cloud State-birthed Greystone Rockers, now seems in jeopardy.
A new music trend comes to the rescue. Tribute shows, based on an album, band or theme, start selling out in St. Cloud’s Pioneer Place on Fifth Theatre. Diethelm gets in on the ground floor with the Fabulous Armadillos, a group he founds with Greg Armstrong, Mike Zeleny and Jay O’Donnell ‘92.
For eight years, and running, the Fabulous Armadillos pre-sell a season of shows in a matter of minutes. A tribute to the Eagles, called “Takin’ It to the Limit,” becomes a hit, with return engagements at both ends of Minnesota. The band leads a fan trip to Mexico and plays to 14,000 fans on the shores of Lake George in downtown St. Cloud.
Diethelm annually teams with keyboard player Ted Manderfeld and other musicians to perform the “Rock & Roll Xmas Spectacular,” a Las Vegas-style Christmas show. Among other things, the show is known for red union suits and a mash-up of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath.”
He does jingles and performs on and produces other artists’ recordings. Notably, he performs alongside Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Jimmy Vaughan and others on 2008’s Grammy-nominated “Pinetop Perkins and Friends.”
For his alma mater, he writes the “Husky Hockey Song,” a 2013 anthem for men’s and women’s Husky Hockey that is part of the pre-game multimedia experience at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.
Diethelm is a big fish now, flourishing in the pond he’s called home for three decades. Many gigs are across the Mississippi River from the southeast St. Cloud home and recording studio he shares with Julie and their two children.
His guitar solos earn rapt attention and top dollar.
His stories, too many too number, are priceless.
Special thanks to St. Cloud State University Outlook