It's not unusual for country artists with singing competition pasts, including former Nashville Star competitors Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves, to breathe a sigh of relief over their losing efforts. That's usually because their hard path to big label deals and Grammy awards came when they were older, wiser and unwilling to change themselves for a quick buck.
Yet what about someone like Caleb Lee Hutchinson, the now 20-year-old runner-up from American Idol's 16th season? As a teenager, Hutchinson enjoyed many of the same unbelievable opportunities as his girlfiend, season 16 winner Maddie Poppe. Two years later, he's still following his own voice as an admirer of country music's greatest singer-songwriters.
When asked how he sidestepped the perceived pitfalls of teenage brushes with fame, Hutchinson credited his rural Georgia upbringing and his support team.
"The older I get and the more I do, the more thankful I am for my parents and my family," he says. "I come from a group of people that constantly check in on me, and I think I have a pretty level head with some of this stuff. I've got a really great team around me, and I'm not too proud or too afraid to ask for guidance... Being smart enough to listen to folks that might be wiser than you is a valuable tool, no matter what age you are."
Hutchinson, a Dallas, Georgia native, now resides in Nashville, where he crosses his favorite songwriters' inspiration with modern production and rock elements. That blanket description has always suited fellow Dallas-raised country singer Travis Tritt, but don't be fooled--Hutchinson is his own man, not a Tritt clone. Nor is he still the teenager known for covering Thomas Rhett, Chris Stapleton, former American Idol winner Carrie Underwood and others before wowing us with original composition "Johnny Cash Heart."
"Musically and stylistically, I'm a completely different than a lot of people might perceive me as because of that show, and I think my music is broader than cover songs on television," Hutchinson said.
It should be mentioned that Hutchinson didn't find reality television success on his first try. Not even Blake Shelton turned his chair after Hutchinson's stirring cover of Garth Brooks' "The Dance" during a 2015 audition for The Voice. Fortunately, Idol judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan--and future Hutchinson producer Kristian Bush of Sugarland--knew potential when they heard it.
Hutchinson's catalog of songs, highlighted by hard country homage "If I Ever Will" and a cover of Post Malone's "Better Now," will grow after he steps in the studio soon to record an album's worth of songs he wrote or co-wrote.
As proved by Patty Loveless, a third country singer with Dallas ties, a great career can be built off interpreting others' lyrics. Yet for Hutchinson, his dream involves following the same singer-songwriter path as Hank Williams, John Prine and other longtime favorites.
"Ultimately, I do music because I love it," Hutchinson says. "It's the best thing in the world to me, and it's the thing I'm most excited about in the universe. I think there's plenty of people who are good enough singers that you can hand them a telephone book that they had nothing to do with, and they could make it sound beautiful. For me, songwriting has been such an incredible thing since a young age. It's something I really love and enjoy. If I can love and enjoy it and do it for a living, that's the dream."