MerleFest offers songwriters the opportunity to have their original songs heard by a panel of professional songwriters and others from the Nashville music industry by participating in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest!

Net proceeds from the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest go to support the WCC Chris Austin Memorial Scholarship. Since its inception, the Chris Austin Scholarship has helped 84 students and awarded over $34,600.

cascCAShy, quiet Chris Austin from Boone, North Carolina, turned courageous on Saturday night as he snuck into the Grand Ole Opry so a friend could introduce him to Ricky Skaggs. Soon, the young artist from Boone had a three-year job as Ricky's sideman playing guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and singing. It took Chris far away from the mountains where he fell in love with the guitar at 9 and joined his father's bluegrass band at 14. Working for Skaggs afforded Chris, who had attended the Country & Bluegrass program at South Plains College in Texas, the opportunity to be seen by executives at Warner Brothers Records, who offered him a recording contract. Over those next few years Warner Brothers released several singles, "Blues Stay Away From Me," "I Know There's A Heart In There Somewhere," and "Out Of Step." A respect for the power that songs have in their ability to make a positive impact in the world led Chris to devote all of his energies to songwriting. Notable writers such as Frank Dycus, Charlie Black, Roger Murrah, Jim Rushing and many others saw an enthusiastic and talented writer in Chris, just as Skaggs heard in "Same Ol' Love," Ricky's top 5 hit with Epic Records. That song, written by Chris and Greg Barnhill was the first major cut for both writers. On March 16, 1991, only a few hours after the recording of "Same Ol' Love," Chris was killed in a tragic plane accident near San Diego along with other members of Reba McEntire's band as well as her tour manager. Pete Fisher, then of Warner Songs and currently general manager of the Grand Ole Opry, and Kari Estrin, then MerleFest consultant and "Pickin' for Merle" video associate producer, initiated the contest to honor the memory of Austin.


Gillian Welch, Tift Merritt, Michael Reno Harrell, Adrienne Young, Martha Scanlan, David Via, Sam Quinn and Johnny Williams just to name a few.

Entries were accepted from October 1, 2015 - February 1, 2016

The Chris Austin Songwriting Contest entry period is now closed for MerleFest 2016. Thanks to everyone who entered and stay tuned for details!

Early birds take note: during the month of October and November, ALL entries for the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (CASC) will receive an early entry discount price of $25 per entry. Submissions received in December and January will require a $30 fee per entry.

Aspiring songwriters may submit entries to the contest using the online entry form OR by mailing entries to: MerleFest/CASC, PO Box 120, Wilkesboro, NC 28697. Online entries are appreciated and encouraged!

10/01/2015 – Chris Austin Songwriting Contest begins accepting entries – Early Bird Entry Pricing ($25 per entry) offered during October and November

11/30/2015 – Early Bird Entry Pricing for the CASC ends

02/01/2016 – Deadline to enter the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest

Prizes will be awarded to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners in each category. All prizes will be awarded to the name on the entry form. Prizes are awarded jointly to all authors. Division of prizes among co-authors is the responsibility of winners. The winner of all prizes worth $600 or more will receive a 1099-MISC. Taxes are the responsibility of winners. Void where prohibited. All federal, state and local laws and regulations apply. Non U.S. citizens are subject to U.S. taxes when prize is received.

1st Place Winners Receive

  • A performance on the Cabin Stage at MerleFest
  • $500 cash
  • Two boxes of D'Addario strings
  • One-year subscription to Acoustic Guitar Magazine
  • Strings from Kyser Musical Products

2nd Place Winners Receive

  • A slot on the Friday nightSongwriter Showcase Coffeehouse
  • $250 cash
  • One box of D'Addario strings
  • One-year subscription to Acoustic Guitar Magazine
  • Strings from Kyser Musical Products

3rd Place Winners Receive

  • A slot on the Friday night Songwriter Showcase Coffeehouse
  • $50 cash
  • One box of D'Addario strings
  • One-year subscription to Acoustic Guitar Magazine
  • Strings from Kyser Musical Products

Three finalists from each category compete on the Austin Stage at MerleFest in Wilkesboro, N.C. Transportation to and from the festival and any other expenses are the responsibility of the finalist. Three nights of lodging (room and taxes only) are provided for each finalist. Each finalist receives up to three all-access passes to the festival. Co-writers will be treated as one writer for lodging, credentials and prizes.

First place winners of each category perform their song on the Cabin Stage. Each song in the finals must be performed live by the composer, with no more than one accompanist other than a co-writer and no performances to prerecorded tracks.

2016 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest On-site Judges:

Milan Miller

Multi-instrumentalist Milan Miller may joke that he first moved to Nashville because he “heard they were running out of guitar players,” but his time in the city revealed to him an independent music community that belies any pretense or cliché. With light-speed picking and his trusty tenor voice, Miller quickly became a first-call sideman and collaborator.
Traveling the world, he has made appearances at venues ranging from Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater to Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, California, and from the Grand Ole Opry to Symphony Hall with the Boston Pops Orchestra. Along the miles traveled, his songs have been recorded by some of the most popular names in bluegrass. The fruits of this labor have yielded five number one songs in the genre, a steady stream of others that have graced the top twenty, two nominations for Song of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association, and a multimedia award from the North Carolina Society of Historians. In 2013 he released “Poison Cove,” his critically acclaimed solo debut.

John Cloyd Miller

A performing artist and songwriter based in Asheville, N.C., John Cloyd Miller was a first place winner in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest in 2013 and a recipient of an Artist Fellowship for songwriting by the North Carolina Arts Council in that same year. A founding member of the acclaimed Americana trio Red June, John currently performs with his wife, Natalya Weinstein, as the Appalachian duo Zoe & Cloyd. John has recorded six albums with his various music projects and has performed all across the country at events such as Grey Fox, MerleFest, Suwannee SpringFest, FreshGrass, Shakori Hills, Music City Roots, Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival and Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. In addition to performing, John teaches songwriting and applied traditional music at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C.

Sarah Potenza

Known for her recent success on NBC's “The Voice,” Sarah Potenza is a singer-songwriter, rock ‘n’ folk artist living in Nashville, Tenn. Sarah’s song “My Turn” took second place in the 2014 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest. Her voice and her songs have been praised by Billboard, Rolling Stone, John Oates, Pharrell Williams, Todd Snider, Elizabeth Cook and more. Sarah has performed her original compositions at The Grand Ole Opry, The Bluebird Cafe, Music City Roots, Americana Music Festival, Rhythm & Roots Festival and others. She is currently recording her first solo album, “Monster,” set to release this spring.


1) Income – The Chris Austin Songwriting Contest is open to those whose primary source of income (50% or more) is not derived from songwriting or publishing. Income from performing gigs is not songwriting income. Be aware that some songwriters may play their music on tour or have their own album. All finalists will be asked to sign an official Acknowledgment of Eligibility. This also applies to co-writers.

2) Original Work – All entries must be the original work of contestant and shall not infringe on any copyright or any other rights of any third party. Contestant may enter as many songs as desired, but this does not necessarily increase the chances of winning.

3) Re-entry – First place winners during the past five years may not re-enter in the specific category in which they won. Second and third place winners during the past year may not re-enter the same song. Co-writers are subject to the same eligibility requirements as the entrant. Artists paid to perform at MerleFest are not eligible to enter the CASC in the year they are being paid.

4) Musical Composition – Each song submitted must have both instrumentation and lyrics. NO INSTRUMENTAL SONGS. Lyrics should also be written and recorded in English. There are four categories in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest: Bluegrass, Country, General, and Gospel/Inspirational. Judges will determine the musical parameters of each category and reserve the right to reassign a song to a more appropriate category if necessary.

Online entry form and signature on entry form constitutes each song submitted is an original work and releases The Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, sponsors, Wilkes Community College, and MerleFest from all liability. Entry also constitutes permission to use winner's name and likeness for future advertising and publicity without compensation.

Only entries submitted according to the rules will be considered. No deadline extensions. No exceptions. Compact disc will not be returned. Entry fees are non-refundable. Entrant must perform song live in the finals at MerleFest.


The on-site live competition takes place at the Chris Austin Stage in Alumni Hall on the campus of Wilkes Community College on festival Friday. Each song in the finals must be performed live by the composer, with no more than one accompanist other than a co-writer and no performances to prerecorded tracks. When there are two or more songwriters, the limit on stage is three individuals. The first tie-breaker in the finals will be the highest score given to a song by an individual judge.


Entries will be judged by a panel of professional songwriters, publishers, or other music industry professionals from the Nashville music community who volunteer their time. Please know that all submissions are listened to and treated fairly by a team of volunteer judges. The preliminary judging is in Nashville and will continue to be due to the volume of industry professionals that can be drawn upon for their expertise. All entries will be judged on originality, lyrics, melody and the song's overall commercial potential. Music production and performance quality are not considered. All decisions by judges will be final. Round 1 takes place in Nashville, Tenn. and final round at MerleFest. Finalists will be determined and posted on the website by the first week of April. Only finalists will be personally notified. No personal emails will be sent to entrants who did not make the final 12. No entrants will be provided with scores or evaluations of their entries; it is not feasible at this time due to the number of entries.

Judges for the 2016 onsite competition: John Cloyd Miller, Sarah Potenza and Milan Miller.


1st Place – Robert Holthauser (Poplar Springs, N.C.) and Rick Pardue (Poplar Springs, N.C.) – “Brother Paul”

2nd Place – Benjamin Luckhaupt (West Harrison, Ind.) and Titus Luckhaupt (West Harrison, Ind.) – “Seven Times”

3rd Place – Dave Herring (Charlottesville, Va.) – “Though I Walk

1st Place – Carter Sampson (Oklahoma City, Okla.) – “Wild Bird”

2nd Place – Kristen Grainger of True North Band (Salem, Ore.) – “Doris Dean”

3rd Place – Laura Kaufman (Boone, N.C.) – “Through the Grave”


1st Place - David Morris (Gaithersburg, Md.), Mitch Matthews (Hamtramck, Mich.) and Dawn Kenney (Waltham, Mass.) – “Something About A Train”

2nd Place – Buddy Guido (Mohawk, N.Y.) and Paul Kelly (Santa Fe, N.M.) – “Deer in the Headlights Look”

3rd Place – Donna Hughes (Trinity, N.C.) – “Blackbeard”

1st Place – Hunter and Suzy Owens (Sydney, Australia) – “It Would Be Easier”

2nd Place – Savannah Smith (Asheville, N.C.) – “Mississippi”

3rd Place - Carri Smithey (Burlington, N.C.), Josh Coe (Saxapahaw, N.C.), Ryan Burgess (Burlington, N.C.) and Keith Ingalls (Burlington, N.C.)  – “No More.”


MerleFest 2015 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest finalists and judges