Caleb Lee Hutchinson: Small-town boy with big dreams

Posted May 15, 2018 4:07 p.m. EDT

ATLANTA -- Often, garnering votes on ABC's "American Idol" or any similar show is as much about personality as it is about singing.

Caleb Lee Hutchinson is clearly a strong country singer with a deep Josh Turner-esque voice. But he certainly didn't hurt himself with his self-deprecating humor and aw-shucks humility in the pre-taped sections before each performance.

On Sunday night, for instance, the 19-year-old from Dallas, Georgia, read a letter to his mom, Piper, thanking her for her dedication to him and helping him believe in himself. Then he joked, "It's good to know if this music thing doesn't work out, I can live in the basement until I die."

Not long after performing a heartfelt cover of "Stars in Alabama" by Jamey Johnson, he cruised into the finals of the show, facing off against Iowa singer-songwriter Maddie Poppe and Pittsburgh country/soul singer Gabby Barrett on Monday for the crown. (The final three performance show is set for Sunday. The results will air Monday.)

"In two years, when you're 21, I'd like to drink a beer with you," said a rapturous judge Katy Perry, who praised him for his pure relatability.

Hutchinson came in a bit heavyset during auditions last summer but at the time he decided to make a concerted effort to lose weight. By the time ABC was airing live shows a month ago, he had shed 80 pounds.

His stage presence has been tentative at times and he looks far more comfortable with a guitar than without. But his likability and authenticity are unquestioned.

M.J. Santilli, who has run an "Idol" fan site called MJ's Big Blog for more than a decade, didn't think he had a shot to win going into the top 10 but now is far more optimistic.

"Caleb carved out a nice little growth arc for himself," she wrote in her column Monday, noting how he has gained confidence on stage.

But she thinks Barrett is the one to beat.

"She's versatile, consistent, an A-plus vocalist," Santilli wrote. "Her biggest drawback: she hasn't really established an artistic identity. Is she a country singer? A soul singer? When she covers artists, her renditions can verge on the karaoke. Yet, she's popular. There's no denying her vocal talent and confidence -- a potent combo."

Still, eight of the past nine winners on "American Idol" have been guys. And the last country singer to win was Scotty McCreery from season 10 and Hutchinson is cut from a similar mold: a sweet Southern kid from a small town with big dreams.

Rodney Ho writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: rho(at)ajc.com.

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