Caleb Lee Hutchinson on ‘American Idol’ & New Album ‘Southern Galactic’

Caleb Lee Hutchinson has many distinct music memories growing up in Georgia. For one, he recalls his grandmother buying him a black cowboy hat and a karaoke machine full of Johnny Cash songs. “I put a lot of hours in with that karaoke machine,” he tells American Songwriter. By the time he was in elementary school, he was convinced he was going to be a rock star, reveling in his father’s old cassette tapes of John Prine, Jimmie Rodgers, and Mississippi John Hurt classics. “I would always beg him to drive me to school just so I could listen to all that stuff,” Hutchinson says. “I never had any other interest. I just thought that music was the coolest thing in the world. And I still do. I think it’s the way that putting on a song can change a moment.  It’s like magic. I just wanted to be a part of it.” 

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That dream became reality when Hutchinson auditioned for season 16 of American Idol in 2018. After a failed audition on The Voice, Hutchinson was a recent high school graduate when he walked into the Idol audition room and sang The SteelDrivers’ “If It Hadn’t Been for Love,” winning over new judges Luke Bryan, Katy Perry, and Lionel Richie. The Dallas, Georgia, native was named runner-up and has since released three EPS and two studio albums, his latest being Southern Galactic. Hutchinson chats with American Songwriter about his Idol journey, how he arrived at Southern Galactic, and how it motivated him to keep making music. 

American Songwriter (AS): When did you first identify as a songwriter?

Caleb Lee Hutchinson (CLH): I think it’s something I’m still coming to terms with. The first song I wrote, I wrote with my uncle when I was 10 years old. It was like a drinking song. Clearly, I had never drank in my life. But pretty much from that point on I was like, “I’m a songwriter.” It was called Drink You Away.” I used to hang out with my uncle every weekend. When I went to his house, he was like, “I got a line for you. ‘Tonight’s the night I won’t remember.’” So then I wrote a song that night and showed it to him. He was like, “This is good.” I don’t think I wrote another song for four years, but I was like, “I’m a songwriter.” 

AS: What inspired you to audition for American Idol?

CLH: I was graduating high school and like a lot of people when I graduated high school, I was like, “What am I going to do with my life?” All I ever wanted to do is music. I had no other interests and was talking to my parents about it. I didn’t really know what to do or how to go about it and thought I’d like to try to go to Nashville, but I didn’t know anyone there or anything about it. The Idol thing just happened because it was coming back on television on ABC and my dad had sent me that they were doing open calls and he’s like, “Why don’t you do this? Might work out or he might meet some like-minded people.” And so I was like, “Yeah why not.” I didn’t really expect anything would come of it, but I thought I could meet some people and figure out how to network. It went much better than I anticipated.

[RELATED: Caleb Lee Hutchinson Teases Brent-Cobb Produced EP ‘Slot Machine Syndrome’ with Intro Single “Who I Am”]

AS: On Idol, what were the biggest challenges that you faced and how did you overcome them?

CLH: I learned a lot of things really quick on the show. Probably the biggest one is to not care so much about what people say. When you open yourself up to a platform like that and you’ve never been really exposed to anything like that, especially a lot of the weird online stuff and criticism and people saying things about you. People found out a lot about my personal life. I got very exposed to a lot of things. That whole experience made me have a better understanding of myself and how to not give so much care to what other people are saying about you. 

I think that was a big thing for me because obviously, I had never been in a position to have anywhere close to that attention or notoriety. It was weird at the time, but I think it set me up to be in a good place where I’m at right now making this record. Whether people love it or hate it, I’m proud of it and I feel really good about it. I don’t know if I would be feeling that way had I not gone through those other experiences.

AS: Talk to me about creating Southern Galactic and what made you want to explore this galactic sound. 

CLH: I wanted to remain true to country and the music that I’ve always loved and listened to while at the same time pushing myself to continue to grow and do things that excited me. I think that’s what led me to want to work with [producer Titanic Sinclair] in the first place. He’s always been very much his own person when it comes to making music and always been very unique. I wanted someone to help facilitate me making something that cool, something that really excited me. 

AS: What stories are you telling on this album?

CLH: This whole album encapsulates the last year or so of my life. I’ve faced a lot of heartbreak, a lot of self-discovery, a lot of finally being able to just have a good time and feeling better. I think the album has all of those things sprinkled out through it. It’s very weird to have an album full of your inner thoughts, but hopefully it’s something that other people can connect to for that reason. I’ve made a lot more peace with myself this year than I ever have. It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever felt like I really understood who I am and the person I am and the artist I want to be. It seems a lot more true this go around.

AS: How do you hope that this album impacts the people who hear it?

CLH: Hopefully people can resonate with all parts of it. Maybe if they’re in the bad times, they can hear about the good ones and see themselves, maybe it’ll help them push forward. Before I made this record, it was probably the closest I’d ever came to just giving up on everything, and music in particular. I think the fact that I took the initiative to push forward led me to making an album that I’m the most proud of anything I’ve ever done. Hopefully that alone inspires people to keep pushing forward.

Photo Credit: Sam Aldrich / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media

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