Chris Austin Songwriting Contest

The CASC application details will be available January 2021 for MerleFest 2021, September 16 -19.

2020 Finalists


  • Aaron Burdett (Saluda, NC) – “Rockefeller”
  • Joel Mabus (Portage, MI) – “Shine”
  • Molly Mathewson (Athens, IL) – “The Tie that Binds”


  • Marie Bradshaw (Centerville, UT) – “American Dream”
  • Sarah Jones (Nashville, TN), Royale Lynn (Nashville, TN), Priscilla Block (Nashville, TN) – “Wyoming”
  • Sarah Jane Nelson (Nashville, TN), Kenny Foster (Nashville, TN) – “Sins of the Father”


  • Jomo Edwards (Austin, TX) – “You Need It”
  • Dori Freeman (Galax, VA) – “The Rollin’ Hills”
  • Bradley Lauretti (Shelton, CT) – “South Dakota”


  • Mark Atkinson (Charleston, WV) – “Home”
  • Benjamin Luckhaupt (West Harrison, IN) – “Songs About Heaven”
  • Erinn Peet-Lukes (Golden, CO) – “Take Back Your Angels”

Sponsored By:

D'Addario logo
Shubb Capos logo

Contest Rules

  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 year may not re-enter in the specific category in which they won or re-enter the winning song. 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.
  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.
  5. Performance – Artists scheduled to perform at MerleFest are not eligible to enter the CASC in the year they are performing.
  6. Online Entries – The 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.
  7. All Entries – Only entries submitted according to the rules will be considered. No deadline extensions.  No exceptions. Compact disc will not be returned.
  8. Entry Fees – All entry fees are non-refundable.
  9. For More Information – If you have further questions, you may email us at or call 1-800-343-7857.


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. The 12 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. The final competition takes place on the Austin Stage at MerleFest.


Three finalists from each category compete on the Chris 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 Friends and Family access passes to the festival. Co-writers will be treated as one writer for lodging, credentials and prizes.

The on-site live competition takes place 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 pre-recorded 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.


First place winners will perform winning song on the Cabin Stage at MerleFest on Friday night and perform a 12-13-minute set on the Cabin Stage on Saturday between 11:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. Performances on the Cabin Stage will be songwriter and one accompanist. When there are two or more songwriters, the limit on stage is three individuals.

1st Place Winners Will Receive:

  • To be determined

2nd Place Winners Will Receive:

  • To be determined

3rd Place Winners Will Receive:

  • To be determined

2019 Chris Austin Songwriting Competition Winners


1st Place:
Anya Hinkle (Asheville, NC) – “Ballad of Zona Abston”

2nd Place:
James E. Woolsey (Petersburg, IN), David Foster (Petersburg, IN) – “Sugar Ridge Road”

3rd Place:
Wyatt Espalin (Hiawassee, GA) – “Light Coming Through”


1st Place:
Andrew Millsaps (Ararat, NC) – “Ain’t No Genie (In a Bottle of Jack)”

2nd Place:
Hannah Kaminer (Asheville, NC) – “Don’t Open Your Heart”

3rd Place:
Shannon Wurst (Fayetteville, AR) – “Better Than Bourbon”


1st Place:
Alexa Rose (Asheville, NC) – “Medicine for Living”

2nd Place:
Bryan Elijah Smith (Dayton, VA) – “In Through the Dark”

3rd Place:
Wright Gatewood (Chicago, IL) – “First”

Gospel / Inspirational

1st Place:
Russ Parrish (Burnsville, MN), Topher King (Savage, MN) – “Washed By The Water”

2nd Place:
Ashleigh Caudill (Nashville, TN), Jon Weisberger (Cottontown, TN) – “Walkin’ Into Gloryland”

3rd Place:
Kevin T. Hale (Brentwood, TN) – “We All Die to Live Again”

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

About the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest

Chris Austin PhotoTo 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.

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.

2019 Finalists