Country artist Hunter Hutchinson builds on his Abilene roots and mentors
By Sarah Carlson
Photography by Beth Dukes
Hunter Hutchinson can’t help but be momentarily distracted by the scenery flying by his band’s 15-passenger van. It’s a view he’s never seen before.
“There’s a lot of cool things up here in Kansas,” he said, then paused. “Actually, we’re still in Missouri.”
It’s hard to keep track some days. Everything is new for the 24-year-old country artist from Abilene. Not even a year out of Texas Tech and still early in his career, Hunter was a long way from his West Texas stomping grounds in early November as he and his five-man band promoted his second album, Keep Rollin’ On.
“Five or six years ago, I had barely touched a guitar,” he said. “And now we’re headed to Nebraska. It’s an adventure for sure.”
Talking on his cell phone as the band travels, he can’t help but yawn a few times, either. Life on the road can be a beating: the day before, it was up at 6:30 a.m., on the road from home by 7:30 a.m., at the venue in Missouri at 6 p.m., doors at 7 p.m., perform at 8 p.m.
Touring Texas is easier, but Hunter is finding stops across the U.S. no less rewarding. He already has fans waiting for him in the various Midwest venues along his tour route, ready to sing along to the young songwriter’s songs.
“We had people show up last night to watch us play,” he said. “To be all the way up here and have people who know your music? That’s amazing.”
Hunter’s sound fits in with modern country radio, but there’s a slight twist. Listen closely, and you can hear influences from stars who made it big before Hunter was even born.
“As unoriginal as it sounds, I’m really just a big George Strait fan,” Hunter said. “Whenever we do cover songs, that’s the only guy I want to cover. I like Alan Jackson’s style of writing a lot. Really anybody in that ’90s country era. It’s hard to do these days – it’s hard to get that young crowd out for that kind of music.”
They come out for a version of it at a Hunter Hutchinson concert whether they know it or not, with his baritone voice and music that balances honky-tonk with a touch of rock.
Back to that comment about the guitar. Hunter’s father, Chuck, was the musical one in the family, serving as the praise and worship leader at Wylie Methodist Church. Hunter never showed an inclination for learning an instrument or performing growing up; he wasn’t inspired to until age 17 – about three years after Chuck passed away from esophageal cancer.
Hunter picked up the instrument after he was sidelined from baseball thanks to an arm injury as pitcher for Wylie. He’d already lost so much in his life at such a young age; he didn’t know he needed a creative outlet to process his losses until he started practicing and writing. His mother, Karla, found him in front of the computer one day following along to YouTube tutorials with one of his father’s guitars.
“He was struggling a lot at that point,” Karla said. “I was understanding more and more he had a lot of artist in him. One day, he picked up his dad’s guitar. It surprised me – I was amazed at how quickly he learned it.”
“Whenever I started playing guitar,” Hunter said, “I would record cover songs on my phone. And of course my mom got a hold of them and sent them to Aaron.”
That would be country music star Aaron Watson, whom the Hutchinsons had befriended in 2008 planning a benefit golf tournament for Love and Care Ministries in honor of Chuck, who was on the nonprofit’s board.
After her husband’s death, Karla was encouraged by friends to join the planning committee for the tournament. Watson was one of the sponsors, and he both welcomed Hunter to stand with him during the tournament and to join him on stage at a concert afterward at The Historic Paramount Theatre. The Watson and Hutchinson families became fast friends.
“He just kind of took my boys under his wings that night,” Karla said. “We started going over to their house once a week. From that point on, it was family. Aaron has been a tremendous influence on Hunter’s life. It has been a beautiful thing to watch.”
Seeing his talent, Watson set about co-writing and producing Hunter’s first album, What Do You Say?, released in March 2015 and featuring “The Man Who Believed In Me,” one of Hunter’s first songs to write, about his father.
“Hunter is like a little brother to me so obviously I’m a little biased,” Watson said. “I’m so proud of the man and the musician he has become. I expect big things from him in the future.”
Watson has become less involved as his star has continued to rise and his schedule becomes more packed. But Hunter is ready to be out on his own, he said.
“It’s kind of like a dad when he takes the training wheels off and pushes you down a hill – we’re just rolling on our own now,” he said.
A few days after his band’s excursions in the Midwest, Hunter hopped a plane for Nashville to focus on writing. A hit song could be the break he needs, and his new management team is optimistic in his talent. It’s a lot of pressure – “I think it was Hank Williams that said, ‘You can’t make an appointment for art,’ ” Hunter said. But he’s learning to focus and hone his craft.
Karla, of course, is his biggest fan and “momager,” helping with everything from merchandise to bookkeeping. She used to be at all his performances until one day she heard, “Mom, you don’t have to show up at every show.”
“I kinda got the message, and I backed off a lot, which was really good because it was exhausting,” she said with a laugh. She still sees the work he puts into his new role, however.
“Being a performer is writing and getting writer’s block,” she said. “It’s driving all hours of the night on weekends. It’s getting merchandise and keeping a booth. It’s not as glorious as people think, but I have no doubt that he’s meant for that stage. When he gets on that stage, he’s like nobody I’ve ever seen.”
“My shows are high energy and very personal,” Hunter said. “I don’t like to just sit up there and play song after song. I like to interact with people. It’s not just about what we’re doing. It’s about the fans. It’s a lot more fun when you can interact and make those fans become friends. They’ll support you forever.”