'American Idol' interview: Caleb Lee Hutchinson wanted girlfriend Maddie Poppe to win

Posted Tuesday, May 29, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Caleb Lee Hutchinson of Paulding County didn't win the "American Idol" prize a week ago but he did get the girl. And being runner up? He is just fine with that since the girl in question Maddie Poppe happened to be the one who beat him.

"I was hoping and praying Maddie would win just because I'm Team Maddie," he said last Friday, four days after America voted for his 20-year-old singer-songwriter girlfriend as the 16th "American Idol" winner. He was still in Los Angeles after a quick trip to New York to do "Good Morning America" and "Live With Kelly and Regis."

The 19-year-old Georgia native planned to fly back to Atlanta this week before embarking on rehearsals for the three-month "American Idol" tour which starts in July and features this season's top 7 and season 8 winner Kris Allen. Atlanta isn't part of the tour, though he is excited to perform at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the only stop in the Southeast.

Assuming Caleb's contractual obligations with "Idol" are similar to what earlier "Idol" contestants had, Hollywood Records - which automatically signs Maddie - has an option for a certain period of time to pick up Caleb as well. Hollywood is largely a pop label but it does have a small country affiliate DMG Nashville which is releasing an album by actress Lucy Hale on June 3. In other words, he can't shop himself around for a little while yet to rival labels.

"I have some demos recorded," Caleb said. "I have an idea how I want my record to sound. I'm going to figure it out. I'm going to just kind of let everything fall into place. It's a whirlwind at the moment. Just have to keep the momentum going."

He said he purposely get the romance under wraps from the public so it wouldn't impact votes.

"Maddie was fine announcing it from the beginning," he said. "I didn't want to take away from the music. I wanted to focus on the task at hand." He knew once it got out that fellow contestants Gabby Barrett and Cade Foehner were dating, journalists kept asking them about the relationship more than their performances.

He said the romance was no secret among crew. "It wasn't anything I ever tried to hide," he said, from that perspective. After Gabby was eliminated, host Ryan Seacrest off stage asked Caleb and Maddie if it would be okay to talk about it now that they were top two and the votes were already cast. At that point, Caleb said, "Sure, why not?"

On the previous Sunday's finale performance show, Caleb made what seemed like a false start during his new single "Johnny Cash Heart," an unusual mistake for someone who seemed unflappable up to that point. Like Chandler on "Friends," Caleb deflected my question about that with a joke: "It was an artistic choice. I never mess up. I make artistic choices. If I trip and fall and people laugh, it's because they don't understand my art. I'm way too deep for them!"

When Katy Perry said he seemed nervous, he said the mildly negative observation didn't bother him. "They're there to critique," he said. "I wasn't surprised. I take it for what it is."

And why was "Folsom Prison Blues" his "hometown dedication"? That isn't exactly a happy-go-lucky song for Dallas, GA.

"It was just kind of an accident," he said. "Initially, it wasn't going to be my hometown song. Back in the day when we were writing down what we wanted for this category, I didn't expect to make it this far. So when we got down to it, I just went for it because it was the first song I ever learned and performed for people. I hadn't done it for a few years but it was cool." Then he couldn't help himself and joked, "It was about the time I killed a man." (I could hear his publicist sighing audibly over that one.)

And reprising his favorite song of his time on "Idol" was easy: Keith Whitley's ballad "Don't Close Your Eyes."

"That performance from Hollywood week brought back my fondest memories of the show," he said. "I remember fellow contestants reacting and liking it. Watching it on TV was really surreal. It's one of my favorite songs of all time."

This fall, in all likelihood, he will camp out in Nashville, which is the go-to place for any aspiring country singer. "My game plan is work as hard as I can and keep pushing forward," he said. "Hopefully, I wind up in Nashville. I'd hate to go up there with no real plan."

On a lighter note, he was proud of his imitation of Lionel Richie on live TV, a little less impressed with his father Hutch's imitation of Katy: "What was that? My dad's funnier than I am but I don't know if imitations are his passion."

And I brought up the story from his Spanish high school teacher at South Paulding High providing him an outlet to sing songs at the end of the school day if he finished his school work. It's true, he said. "I prefer to be singing," he said. "She would let me if I got it done. Some teachers were cooler about it than others. I'd change the lyrics of some songs to make them school appropriate. Instead of 'drink a beer,' I'd sing 'drink a milk.' Stupid stuff, whatever I had to do."


The third-place finisher Gabby Barrett has released two original videos. The first one "Jesus and My Mama" is super basic, just her in front of a camera. The second one was shot in some sort of kid-zone type place with trampolines and is cute.



The New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica and pop music editor Caryn Ganz break down the return of "American Idol" on the Popcast podcast. "I think it's a trash outcome," said Caramanica, who preferred Caleb to win but expected Gabby to win. Caryn is a Maddie fan. Of the 12, Jon is a fan of both Catie Turner and Michael W. Woodard. "Bland singers tend to win," he noted, pointing out Kris Allen beating Adam Lambert season eight.

They played Woodard's "Cabaret" cover of "Maybe this Time" and raved over it and loved his weird approach. Caryn didn't like Gabby much. Caryn likened Maddie to Regina Spektor but Jon didn't understand the tone of her voice. "There is no texture to it," he said. Caryn felt it was soothing and effortless but not dull. When she said Maddie was consistent, he said she was describing Maddie like a chicken nugget.

"I mentally zoned out during her performances," Jon said, who needed more edge. He did say that she chose songs that fit her voice.

Jon said Lionel Richie ran out of things to say by the end of the season but liked how he dressed. Caryn bemoaned that there was no Simon Cowell but Katy Perry did sharpen up the final two episodes. "The judges were not hard enough on them," Caryn said. They said this was a great career move for Katy.

They noted how quickly the shows ran through so it was more difficult to build a narrative like they did in the early seasons. He said this season the singers didn't change much from beginning to end. "I don't know what I'm learning week to week," Jon said. Caryn wonders if it's casting or the fact kids build their brands with social media.

One exception in their minds was Catie Turner. They felt like we invested in her life. She was a camera magnet.

They also discussed the show's first drag queen Ada Vox. Caryn said he wished her vocals were a teeny bit better. They said it's sad but true that minorities and gay folks generally didn't get the votes from America but it was clear the judges and producers pushed him, Dennis Lorenzo, Jurnee and Michelle Sussett into the top 10. He felt the producers "with intention" dropped Trevor (the dude Katy had a faux crush on) early because he was a bit too much like Kris Allen.

They briefly touched upon the romance of Caleb and Maddie plus Cade and Gabby. "Michael J's saying, 'Hey, what about me?" Jon joked.

Partway through, they got around to talking about Caleb. They naturally compared Caleb to Scotty McCreery. "They [both] have a reliable country voice," Jon said. "Caleb is like Scotty with a sense of humor. He's genuinely funny, ironic and weird. He will probably have a reasonably good run in Nashville."

They noted that Harper Grace, who got cut early but got some love during the season performance finale, might have a good Nashville career and played a snippet of her original song "Yard Sale."

They didn't like the real-timing voting because the departures were so rushed and people would vote regardless of their performance that day. In the past, the show would give the singer who was voted out their own video and a chance to sing one more song. "I genuinely missed that," Jon said. "I found it offensive."

They addressed the ratings as well and said although ABC may have lost money with "Idol," it did well enough for a rebuilding network.


Kelly Clarkson sang the National Anthem before the Indy 500. She will perform her version of "American Woman" on the upcoming CMT Music Awards June 6. Carrie Underwood is scheduled to perform as well.

About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.