That’s Caleb Lee Hutchinson, charting a bold course for his country career and knowing it won’t be easy – especially in a landscape full of singing show graduates. But then again, he’s used to standing out.
After all, Hutchinson was the blond-haired charmer whose crisp baritone and forward thinking tastes captivated American Idol’s 16th season, and with an adventurous batch of original music on the way, he’s ready to build on those hints of artistry. One of the genre’s finest new vocals reaches back through history and combines with a cutting edge vision of modern country sonics, as classic meets contemporary in earnest.
“I’m not trying to be ‘John Doe,’” Hutchinson explains. “I’m just trying to be me.”
Raised in the small town of Dallas, Georgia, just 35 miles west of Atlanta, Hutchinson came by this new generation of three-chords-and-the-truth honestly – while other kids were obsessing over sports, he was doing the same with music. His dad schooled him in classic-country icons like Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, his mother loved the electronic energy of ‘80s pop, and an uncle kept heavy-metal legends like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in constant rotation.
At five years old the youngster learned to sing on a karaoke machine, then picked up a guitar and began setting up “shows” in his uncle’s basement. He learned Johnny Cash’s gritty “Folsom Prison Blues” as his first song and was soon winning local talent shows – even opening concerts for trad-country stalwarts like Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent in middle school. But by his senior year, a restless creativity began to emerge, with Hutchinson posting countrified covers of hip-hop star Post Malone online and foreshadowing his story to come.
In 2017 he took that spirit to American Idol, moving seamlessly between his love for traditional giants like Keith Whitley and rough-hewn modern stars like Sturgill Simpson. He stood out immediately as fans latched on to his dynamic Southern vocals – just as resonate on Carrie Underwood’s “So Small” as they were on Prince’s “When Doves Cry” – and by the show’s finale he had earned a strong secondplace finish. But it felt more like a beginning than an end.
“Half the reason I took a chance and did Idol was because my parents were like ‘You only get one life. You don’t want to look back when you’re 50 and wish you had tried a little harder,’” Hutchinson says. “There’s a path in country that nobody’s really on right now, and even if the music I make is a little out in left field, at least it will be something you’ve never heard before.”
With six new tracks, that path is becoming clear. In 2018 he joined producer Kristian Bush in an Atlanta recording studio – one half of the Grammy winning country duo Sugarland, and no stranger to infusing country with outside energy. With Bush as his guide, Hutchinson began by walking the timeworn trails of country’s past, but soon struck out into a wilderness of anything-goes inspiration. Classic balladry mixes with blistering Southern rock and rootsy indie pop, with acoustic guitars and moody rhythms meeting ethereal, electronic effects. A self-penned standout lays Hutchinson’s soul bare and a rap anthem transforms into a stone-country heartbreaker – all built around that commanding baritone, geared low for traction in the muddy emotions which connect us all.
“I think it has a broad array of sounds,” Hutchinson says of the new tunes. “They’re not quite folky, not quite singer-songwriter, but leaning to that side of country, and that’s my favorite thing – there’s all kinds of craziness going on.”
With a swampy slide guitar leading the charge, Hutchinson gets real in a hurry on “As Good As You Think I Am,” connected in part to the double-edged sword of American Idol fame. Propulsive and yet introspective, “It’s not about living up to expectations and pressure,” he explains, “but just trying to be a person someone else can be proud of.”
The humble sentiment continues on “Steering Wheel Prayers,” an early-morning conversation between God and a regular Joe presented in quiet, piano-forward desperation. “It hit me in the gut, because there was a period in my life when I had to learn to accept myself and grow,” Hutchinson admits. The woozy “If I Ever Will” nurses a bad breakup, two-stepping through a smoky honky tonk and conjuring neotraditional memories “like somebody’s guts falling out onto the table,” he says.
Meanwhile, “Belle of the Bar” takes a turn toward dreamy modern rock, with ambient guitars and vocal echos framing a blue-jeaned vision of love at first sight. “It’s a good mix of what I’m going for,” Hutchinson says, “traditional, modern and experimental at the same time.” But to truly grasp that “modern and experimental” side, look no further than “Better Now.”
Feeling like a glimpse of a genre-less future, the lovelorn ballad features a low-down storyline and drips in soulful twang – but it’s actually another Post Malone send up, this one a platinum-certified hit stripped to its foundation. “It’s the whole reason I love country,” Hutchinson explains about the striking roots-rap hybrid. “It’s vulnerable and honest, and it was also a chance to do something real funky and weird.”
Looking back, Hutchinson admits he’s often thought of his music as “weird,” but the dark rock anthem “Left of Me” proves others are not so dismissive. Written by Hutchinson solo during the 2018 American Idol Live! Tour, it fuses the sonic edge of underground heroes like the Drive By Truckers with a melodic sense befitting a student of radio icons like Tom Petty, and points the way forward for Hutchinson to bring something “different” to country. He actually assumed his booming tale of romantic hindsight wasn’t good enough to record … but Bush put those fears to rest.
“At first I thought ‘What can I possibly have to say that hasn’t already been said?’” Hutchinson admits. “But [Bush] was like ‘No, you have a story to tell.’” To be sure, that story is just now beginning to unfold. But one thing is already certain – it will be his, and his alone.
“There ain’t no point in doing something if 100 people are doing it already,” he says. “If I’m really gonna do this with my life and I’m really gonna take a leap of faith, I might as well do it in a way that means something to me.”