Contest Rules | MerleFest
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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-entryFirst place winners during the past year 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.

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 FeesAll entry fees are non-refundable


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 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.


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.

First place winners of each category perform their song on the Cabin Stage festival Friday night. 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.

First place winners of each category will also perform a 25-30-minute set on the Cabin Stage festival Saturday between 11:00 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

Past Winners

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.

2019 Chris Austin Songwriting Competition Finalists were:


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”


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- 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- 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”

MerleFest 2019 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest finalists and judges

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-access passes to the festival. Co-writers will be treated as one writer for lodging, credentials and prizes.

1st place winners will have a song performance 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. – 3:30 p.m. 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.