Meet “New Voice” Paul Strickland

A 2023 National Storytelling Festival Preview

Paul Strickland invented storytelling. Or at least he thought he did, until Bil Lepp set him straight.

Over years on the road, Strickland’s background in music and professional comedy had evolved into a narrative-driven one-man-show that he honed at alternative theater events. He had shaped himself into a storyteller, though he wasn’t yet using that word.

“I kind of ignorantly thought I had made it up,” he says. “In my world, no one else was doing this quirky thing.” Meeting Lepp was the first step in expanding his awareness. When Strickland came to Jonesborough as an Exchange Place teller for the first time in 2018, the experience opened doors and kicked his career into a whole new world and context.

It had been a long time coming. Strickland has spent his entire life on the road, from the time he was a child hopping around the Southeast states with his dad, who worked in construction. After studying opera as a college student and taking a detour through Nashville as a songwriter, he finally settled in Kentucky. Even now, he’s only at home base for less than half of the calendar year. His primary residence is the road.

“I think I’m just built for it,” he says.

Strickland never really had a backup plan. Or technically he did (at the urging of his father, who worried that studying opera was impractical). But Strickland’s second major wasn’t business or computer science; it was poetry. “I sang songs for a little while, and then I was playing the guitar and doing gigs on the side,” he says. His “second chance at adulthood” came at 29 years old, when he realized he wasn’t happy with where he was or what he was doing. He left Nashville and never looked back.

“I started pushing toward the long journey of getting to where I am now, which is where I’m actually doing what I want to do for a living,” he says. “I’ve been one of the lucky people who has found what it is that they’re supposed to be doing. It was just a 20-year journey of stumbling backward into it.”

Now firmly disabused of the notion that he invented storytelling, Strickland has developed an unusual performance style inspired by tall tales and, occasionally, traditional stories, albeit heavily adapted. He connects his “magical realist Kentucky trailer park” aesthetic loosely back to his grandfather’s occupation as an evangelical preacher, rooted in the tradition of tent-revival storytelling. For a time, he tried telling true personal stories, but those seemed boring and restrictive when he had the ability to just make things up.

While he still plays guitar, which he frequently strums during his stories, Strickland now considers his imagination to be his primary instrument. “The heart of the story — what I hope you walk away with — will be something that’s not factual, but true for you.”

Since his debut as an Exchange Place teller in 2018, Strickland has returned to the Festival as an audience member twice. He’s still a little in awe of the art form that he didn’t invent. The world of storytelling is both a strange and familiar experience. “I was already doing what I do now,” he says. “I’m not doing anything differently. It has just migrated into this new form, which is really cool.” As a listener, he delights in the many different approaches his colleagues bring to their craft.

“The fun part of being new in the storytelling world has been seeing all the ways I fit in and also the ways that I ‘fit out’ — the ways in which what I’m bringing is unique, and the warmth with which that has been accepted,” he says. “I’m just so excited to share what I do in Jonesborough, which is in many ways a sacred place. To get to share the stage with some of the best tellers in the world and pull in some things that are a bit different from what other people are doing will be, I hope, rewarding for people.”

Paul Strickland is the second featured teller in our New Voice series, a preview of the 51st Annual National Storytelling Festival. Catch up on the series with our feature on storyteller Jasmin Cardenas, and watch for three more in the coming months. We hope you join us for the Festival in Jonesborough October 6–8, 2023.