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January 28, 2002

Rites of Passage

By Eric Rangus


"Iced coffee. Iced latte. Even when it’s cold,” Anna Hutto says in between small slurps of her beverage of choice. “It’s my vice.”

The question was whether she is a coffee drinker. The answer is easily apparent, but it’s one of those throwaway topics of conversation that can sometimes lead to an interesting vignette.

“Last night I went to Starbucks and got some coffee just to have at the house,” Hutto continues. “And I’m driving and I’m smelling the bag and I’m thinking, ‘This is sick.’ But it just smelled great.”

The image of Hutto—one hand on the wheel, nose pressed up against a bag of House Blend—is a gently humorous one.

It is just after 8 a.m. on a brisk, overcast Friday in January. Iced latte weather, it is not.

Hutto sits outside one of Emory Village’s coffee houses. While she has a great deal to do today, she isn’t rushed and never even glances at her watch. The previous afternoon, Hutto, associate director of development and alumni relations in the Candler School of Theology, returned to Atlanta from a weeklong trip to Florida. She met with Candler alumni living in Tampa and Orlando as well as a handful of other lesser known burgs known mainly for orange trees and cheesy gator farms—places with names like Lakeland and Winter Haven.

In less than five hours, she’ll be on a plane again. This time to Greensboro, N.C., and what she calls “The Other Side of Her Life.” She will be performing at a retreat for the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. Since she was 17, Hutto has performed concert and retreat ministry. Her visit to Greensboro will encompass not only music, but she will meet in small groups with the students, who are high school seniors.

In between trips, she didn’t bother to unpack. “I got really good at [living like] that when I traveled full time,” she says.

Hutto was, in fact, a full-time musician for six years. She played more than 125 shows a year. And she was … is … she is good.

For those six years, singer/songwriter/acoustic guitarist Hutto was a cog in the Christian contemporary music machine in Nashville. The inevitable comparison is to Amy Grant. It’s accurate, though incomplete.

Like Grant, Hutto has a strong, clear voice with unmistakable depth. But comparing Hutto to solely Christian artists is a disservice. Early 90s country singer/songwriter/acoustic guitarist Suzy Bogguss can be heard in her voice as well. There also is an alterna-folkiness to Hutto’s music that references Nanci Griffith.
More than just a strummer, Hutto’s guitar playing is complex and she often strays toward the exotic, incorporating accordions and dobros and Hammond organs into the mix.

Her lyrics are positive but not saccharin. Like a song she wrote called Somewhere Tonight.

Somewhere tonight, someone is lonely. With only a hope and a prayer. Oh, but somehow tonight I have been chosen. To reach out, but do I dare.

Essentially, she writes love songs. They just have a bit of a religious bent. Didn’t The Beatles do that? U2? Sting?
Hutto says of her goals as a songwriter: “Being able to say ‘this much’ in about three-and-a-half minutes and say it well and without clichés. That’s what songwriting’s always been—distilling an idea into something that’s understandable yet deep and thoughtful.”

Hutto, who has an English degree from the College of Charleston, doesn’t write many songs anymore. She’s just not in that place right now.

“If you think about rites of passage, when you’re becoming somebody else, there are a lot of times when you don’t know how to tell somebody what’s going on with you,” she says. “My songwriting has been affected by that. My language is different. I don’t use words like ‘sin,’ and ‘heaven’ means something different for me, and ‘humanity’ means something different. It’s harder to write now.”

It’s not that she doesn’t use those words at all. She’s just seen them used in contexts she had never imaged. To wound. To disenfranchise.

Hutto’s new point of view began coming together when she split from the music industry in 1996. At the time, Hutto was primed for a breakout. While working on her first album, Hutto was paired with Dove Award-winning producer Bryan Lenox (the Doves are basically Christian Grammies), who had produced albums for Christian contemporary heavyweights like Carman and Michael W. Smith.

Their songs were professional. Tightly played and accessible.

But Hutto was conflicted. She no longer felt her personal values reflected those of the industry, which can be as cutthroat as any other genre. Often, if an artist’s beliefs do not match up with the status quo, it’s not the industry that will lose.

“I believed in my heart that there was a lot more to the life of the church, and to ministry, than just going in and singing a little bit and leaving,” Hutto says. “I felt called to do a lot more. I felt called to speak, to teach, but I needed some training to know what I was talking about.”

In the midst of these feelings, Hutto was undergoing an important theological shift as well. No longer the self-described zealot of her teen years (“I was lovin’ Jesus,’ she says about her devout Baptist days growing up in South Carolina), Hutto, in her early- and mid-20s, looked at herself and her situation and wasn’t sure if she fit in.

“I wasn’t sure if I believed as conservatively as I once did,” she says. “It seemed like a good time to stop and say, ‘Okay, what do I really believe? What do I really think about all this God stuff? What does it mean to be a faithful person who lives in the world, is part of it and loves it?’

“Seminary seemed like a logical place for me to just stop my music and go and study,” she says. It was a way to reach a deeper understanding of the very things she had been speaking, teaching and singing about since she was 17. “I just tucked myself away for three years.”

Hutto graduated with her master’s of divinity degree from Candler in 1999. One of the things she enjoys about her job is connecting with her fellow alums—several of whom she knew while in school—and finding out what Candler can do for them now.

In fact she barely touches on the money-raising aspect of her job.

“The best part is being out there with our folks,” Hutto says. “There’s a saying that if you go after the money, you don’t always get it, but if you go after a building a sense of loyalty and friendship with somebody, that’s a better connection.”

And Hutto will be connecting with a lot of alumni. Her next trips are to Sea Island in south Georgia, then to Nashville, a city home to many Candler graduates.

And all the while, as she is shaking hands with her fellow Candler alums, a part of her remains somewhere inside her own mind trying to figure things out. She doesn’t rule out a return to music full time, either.

“My journey has made me a better person. I’m more whole. I’m more compassionate,” she says. The fact her album was titled Journey becomes all the more ironic.

“Who do I want to be?” she asks rhetorically. “Who can I really belong to?”

Have you figured that out yet? She is asked.

“No,” Hutto replies. “And that’s hard to admit.”

She sips contemplatively from her iced latte. The chill in the air suddenly feels a little less biting.