Before too many years had passed, Hutchins was on to another (maybe even more remarkable) endeavor, but his career as a professional musician had stalled. He’d gone from writing for Johnny Cash and others, on the cusp of his own career as an artist, to seeming to disappear. The vagaries of the music industry can always add fickleness to anyone’s career route, but a few elements seem to have worked against Hutchins.
One of these elements, to be fair, was probably Hutchins’ own personality.
“I realized one thing when I came to Nashville: I’m a singer-songwriter,” he explained. “I’m very independent. I soon learned how it works in Nashville. You come in and you sign everything away. You end up being a road dog. I had opportunities to sign with some labels. The first time I came down here, in ’72, I was offered a recording contract … and didn’t take it.”
He later had a chance with CBS, but when the producer wanted him “to sound like somebody else,” he decided not to do it.
“I didn’t really need to do it,” he said. “I could go independent and I’m multi-talented. I’m not restricted to one way of making a living. I didn’t want to give it away because I didn’t need to.”
The timing didn’t quite fit either. Nashville was in a transition, moving from more traditional songwriters into the new style of outlaw country then breaking out. Hutchins’ own music sounds somewhere in between the two phases, maybe more indebted even to Kris Kristofferson than to Cash, with his sense of poetry.
“I was the tail end of the singer-songwriter era,” Hutchins said. “The labels weren’t signing singer-songwriters, and that’s what I wanted to be. I was inspired by Johnny Cash, singer-songwriter. Kris Kristofferson singer-songwriter. I knew that’s what I wanted to be. A new era was starting, the outlaw era. I was part of it, too. I was really good friends with Waylon [Jennings] and I knew all of those guys. That was the press and the public that started calling them outlaws. No one wanted to sign me in the right way, which is why I would accept deals even with publishers. My music was too poetic, some of them said. ‘We can make great records with you, but who would play it?’ I said screw it. I won’t do it.”
His son Loney John Hutchins (more on him later), also notes that unfortunate timing.
“Just as [Hutchins] was leaving House of Cash, Waylon Jennings is making a record with a song on it poking fun of the outlaw thing – it’s on its way out. Stylistically, the outlaw movement was ending as he was moving on to his own way of doing things – the styles had changed,” Loney John said. “By the end of the ’70s, it wasn’t that rootsy, earthy, eclectic mix of dynamics. It did start becoming more commercial. The kind of people that he had backing him, that he could credit were already like, ‘We had this fad, let’s do something new.’ He was having to restart.
As the moment for Hutchins wound down, a new opportunity presented itself. Hutchins’ wife, a speech pathologist, said that the nursing home she worked in wanted to start music therapy, so he decided to “give it a try.” Singing for the clients didn’t seem to be productive but the group started a rehab company and wanted to do traditional and nontraditional forms of therapy. They had someone just playing tapes and didn’t know who to ask to do more, so Hutchins persisted even though just playing wasn’t fulfilling.
“One day they started an outpatient facility for head-injured adults,” Hutchins said. “I went out there and they had one man who hadn’t spoken in over a year. I played a song that I had written for him and he started tapping his foot and that day he said his first word. I thought, ‘Man, this is really something. I’ve got something here.'”
Hutchins began seeing clients individually and in groups two days a week. He had learned a technique while volunteering in public schools that helped him understand “how to reach the heart of the child.” He started using a similar practice with head-injury patients, asking them if they’d thought about expressing themselves or writing songs. He would draw feelings and ideas out of them and then set it to music for the patient.
The whole thing took off, even gaining national media attention. Good Morning America and Incredible Sunday did segments on Hutchins. It felt like every major market wanted to do a story on the subject.
“I became known as a music therapist, which I never called myself that,” he said.
Music therapy became an increasingly viable field during this time (now into the late ’80s), with more and more therapists becoming employed as the vocation saw increased professionalization. These therapists were often adopting some of the techniques Hutchins had developed. “It turns out they were doing it bass-ackwards,” Hutchins explained.
He felt like there was jealousy directed at him since he didn’t go through a formal program and shouldn’t be called a music therapist. Those leading the profession wanted him to get more clinical hours and fall more in line but, not surprisingly, Hutchins was interested in the process. He was, however, very interested in his clients, and still speaks of how “heartwarming” and “fulfilling” it was.
Soon he and his wife started their own company providing long-term facilities and day services from anyone with traumatic brain injuries or other issues. He’s retired from the company and his wife’s semi-retired from it, though the company is still going strong.
Hutchins, you might think, was poised for a happy ending at this point, but nothing could ever be that simple. Instead, he faced a difficult legal problem, though it seems he did nothing corrupt. Loney John sums it up succinctly: he was “sitting on some money of a client that had passed away.” Hutchins admits to a weakness in accounting; he’d kept “precise books for 10 to 15 years” and then lost some of that precision. But he was being accused of being dishonorable, a charge that strikes at who he is.
The problem started when he’d gotten involved in local politics and “made some enemies because of the way I am.” He’s been “accused” of being both a Democrat and a Republican but doesn’t align himself with either party. His opponents exploited a situation to “run me through the mill and punish me for not being like them.” The full story takes some untangling – and Hutchins has no hesitation about opening up on the matter – but, in short, he took a plea deal rather spend great time and expense in a case where “they could say I did what I can’t prove that I didn’t.”
“I’d rather just pay the money that I didn’t steal and get over with it,” he said. ” I still know who I am and I will not look back and cry about it.”
“What I need to do is keep on trucking, keep being me,” he added. “I don’t have anything to hide. Anybody who talks to me – they’re going to get an open book.”