About 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.
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. Thie 2019 judges were Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, better known as The Milk Carton Kids, Cruz Contreras of The Black Lillies, and Texas-troubadour Radney Foster. Americana Jim Lauderdale hosted the competition and Mark Bumgarner was emcee for the finalist 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 93 students and awarded over $39,100.
2019 MerleFest Chris Austin Songwriting Winners:
1st Place- Anya Hinkle (Asheville, N.C.) – “Ballad of Zona Abston”
2nd Place- James E. Woolsey (Petersburg, Ind.), David Foster (Petersburg, Ind.) – “Sugar Ridge Road”
3rd Place- Wyatt Espalin (Hiawassee, Ga.) – “Light Coming Through”
1st Place- Russ Parrish (Burnsville, Minn.), Topher King (Savage, Minn.) – “Washed By The Water”
2nd Place- Ashleigh Caudill (Nashville, Tenn.), Jon Weisberger (Cottontown, Tenn.) – “Walkin’ Into Gloryland”
3rd Place- Kevin T. Hale- (Brentwood, Tenn.) – “We All Die to Live Again”
1st Place- Alexa Rose (Asheville, N.C.) – “Medicine for Living”
2nd Place- Bryan Elijah Smith (Dayton, Va.) – “In Through the Dark”
3rd Place- Wright Gatewood (Chicago, Ill.) – “First”
1st Place- Andrew Millsaps (Ararat, N.C.) – “Ain’t No Genie (In a Bottle of Jack)
2nd Place- Hannah Kaminer (Asheville, N.C.) – “Don’t Open Your Heart”
3rd Place- Shannon Wurst (Fayetteville, Ark.) – “Better Than Bourbon”
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.