Music. Moments. Memories.

About the Christ Austin Songwriting Contest

April 26-29, 2018

Chris Austin PhotoAbout the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest

To understand why we have the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, first you need to know who Chris Austin was. Shy, quiet Chris Austin from Boone, North Carolina, turned courageous one 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 and 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.

The Chris Austin Songwriting Contest is closed for 2018. Thank you to all who entered! Chris Austin Songwriting Contest Finalists will be announced the first of April. 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. This year’s onsite judges include Rodney Crowell, Andrew Marlin (of Mandolin Orange), and previous winner Johnny Williams (of Jeanette Williams Band). Jim Lauderdale will host the contest. 

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

2017 MerleFest’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners:


1st: Linda Jean Stokley (Versailles, Ky.) – “Cigarette Trees”

2nd: Mike Bentley (Virgie, Ky.) – “Waiting at the Harbor”

3rd: Matthew Hurd (Rogersville, Tenn.) – “Life Underground”


1st: Paul Kelly (Santa Fe, N.M.), Buddy Guido (Mohawk, N.Y.), and Willie Schoellkopf (Buffalo, N.Y.) “Trap Door (In the Ceiling)”

2nd: Ian Meadows (Chester, Ct.) – “Faithless Preacher”

3rd: Kevin Hale (Brentwood, Tenn.) – “I’m Finally Going Home”


1st: Mary Bragg (Nashville, Tenn.), Liz Poston (Nashville, Tenn.) – “Lucky Strike”

2nd: Carly Burruss (Cumming, Ga.) – “Communion Wine”

3rd: Erin James (Nashville, Tenn.) – “Wilted Flower”


1st: Catherine Backus (Bedford, Va.) – “Tomatoes”

2nd: Alexa Rose (Boone, N.C.)– “Borrow your Heart”

3rd: Shay Martin Lovette (Boone, N.C.), Locke Griffith (Carrboro, N.C.) – “Bermuda Run”

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 VIP 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 can be prerecorded.