Who is Caleb Lee Hutchinson, ‘American Idol’ finalist from Georgia?

Caleb Lee Hutchinson at the WSB building Tuesday, May 15, 2018 as part of his hometown visit for “American Idol.” CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Posted Wednesday, May 15, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Caleb Lee Hutchinson as a child never felt comfortable in his overweight body. He found ways to deflect: self-deprecating quips, celebrity mimicry and singing, a guitar practically glued to him.

After auditioning for “American Idol” last summer in Atlanta, the 19-year-old Paulding County resident knew he would end up on TV a few months later, so he made a big decision: to lose weight.

“He really wasn’t happy with how he looked,” said his best friend, Harley Fuller. “He was always bigger and he wanted to make a real difference.”

Hutchinson — a down-home country singer in a strong position to win the 16th edition of “American Idol” Monday on ABC — said he simply stopped eating so much. (“It’s a mental switch that goes off one day,” he said at Channel 2 Action News on Tuesday during a hometown visit “Idol” filmed for consumption Sunday night. “You know what? It’s time to cut back on the Haagen-Dazs!”)

His diet, which included no more sweet tea or soda, worked. He has shed more than 80 pounds.

Hutchinson showed up to the live shows last month in fighting shape but very much the same Hutchinson, his friends said. In fact, becoming a musician wasn’t a whim on his part. He’s been seeking this path for virtually his entire childhood.

His pastor, Keith Stell, said his earliest memory of Hutchinson’s singing prowess was in fourth grade at a church camp event where Stell watched in awe as the 10-year-old crooned a marathon 11-minute “Weird Al” Yankovic spoken-word song “Albuquerque.” “I was mystified how he was able to do that,” he said. “Just an awesome kid!”

Faith has been an integral part of his life. It’s something Hutchinson cites frequently in interviews. He regularly participated in Wednesday youth group before “Idol” took over his life.

Even while in Los Angeles, Hutchinson remained in regular contact with Stell, senior pastor at the 145-year-old New Georgia Baptist Church in Villa Rica. Before Hutchinson would go to Los Angeles, the pair would regularly meet to talk at the nearby Waffle House or La Bamba Mexican restaurant. While Hutchinson has been away, they have been regularly texting about the impact of fame on his family and his life.

Just before Hutchinson left for Atlanta for the hometown visit earlier this week, Stell sent him this Bible verse: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Hutchinson responded Monday night: “Love you brother Keith. Thank you for everything.”

“He is incredibly respectful and trusting,” Stell said. “He doesn’t know everything. He reaches out for that wisdom.”

Hutchinson was laser focused on pursuing music as a teen. And he was such an amenable guy, teachers allowed him to carry his guitar around from class to class.

“He was always playing music,” Fuller said. His Spanish teacher Lindsey Davis said if he wasn’t getting his work done in a timely fashion, she’d give him an incentive by allowing him to play his guitar during the final five minutes of class. “He’d sing us out at the end of the day,” she said.

She could never get upset with him even if he wasn’t a straight A student. “He was simply too lovable,” she said.

He won the yearbook senior superlative “Most Talented.”

Hutchinson wasn’t blind to reality. He was well aware that pursuing music is no career slam-dunk, so he reluctantly took dual enrollment classes at Chattahoochee Tech during his senior year in preparation for an alternative future. But once he graduated last year and “Idol” became a thing, he happily postponed college.

His core heartbeat is country music, from old-school artists such as Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash to more current artists in that lane such as Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. His Southern accent is real, his deep, rich voice resembling that of a grizzled man three decades his elder.

But he also has a knack for improvisation, an ability to take a song and reshape it for himself. That is why his countrified rendition of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” received plaudits earlier this month.“When I heard the theme was Prince, I knew what song I wanted,” said Hutchinson. “I already had the idea of the arrangement in my mind. It was super cool to go in and do it.”

As a kid before his voice changed at age 11, he went through a 1980s rock phase and loved singing Guns N’ Roses. He then got into 1970s funk. Today, his friends cite his knack for channeling rapper Post Malone, something that he has yet to show off on “Idol.” “If he doesn’t know the full song, he’ll make up lyrics and it still sounds great,” Fuller said.

During his initial audition before the celebrity judges including Georgia country artist Luke Bryan, Hutchinson did a spot-on imitation of Bryan’s speaking voice. He was well known in high school for imitating others. “That’s his fun-loving spirit,” said Janene Browning, his senior adviser. Before “Idol,” “he didn’t put himself out there unless he felt comfortable. I was proud of him to step out there.”

He is the product of his caring non-musical parents William “Hutch” and Piper and Paulding County itself, which is becoming a bedroom community of Atlanta but still retains some of its rural small-town feel. That’s the backdrop of Hutchinson’s childhood.

The city of Dallas and Paulding County as a whole have embraced his journey. On Tuesday evening, hundreds showed up two or three hours early with portable chairs to grab good real estate on Main Street for the parade and concert. His die-hard fans wore T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Hutchpuppies,” harkening to the early days of “Idol” when Clay Aiken had his “Claymates.” The local pharmacy ran out of water at 5:40 p.m. and by the time the parade started, thousands were lined up as if it were the annual Christmas Parade.

Earlier in the day, teachers marveled at how engaged South Paulding High School students were during a pep rally on the football field for Hutchinson, whooping and hollering with gusto, holding up over-sized cardboard cutouts of the singer’s face.

A fan holds an over-sized cardboard cut-out of Caleb Lee Hutchinson at the May 15, 2018 pep rally at his alma mater South Paulding High School. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

“Even the kids who usually sit during pep rallies were excited,” said Davis, who helped organize the rally in a matter of a few days.

She said the community quickly helped out.

The emcees from Rivet Events offered their services for free. Balloons and signs were provided gratis. Three local printing companies donated 1,000 free T-shirts as well. “We didn’t spend a dollar!” Davis said.

ON TV

“American Idol,” 8 p.m. Sunday and 9 p.m. Monday, ABC (in Atlanta, you can watch on Channel 2 WSB-TV)

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