Shy, 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 Rushin, 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.