Among the many highlights of the annual Merlefest music event held in the North Carolina mountains, April 28-May 1, is the Chris Austin Songwriting Competition, which has seen a who’s who of great contemporary songwriters take top prizes over the years, including Gillian Welch, Tift Merritt, and Michael Reno Harrell.
This year’s contest — of which Acoustic Guitar has been a longtime sponsor — brings songwriters from all over the country, although North Carolina seems to attract the most contestants, with three of the 17 names this year being Tarheels. In the bluegrass category are songwriters from New Jersey, North Carolina, and Kentucky; the gospel category includes folks from Tennessee, North Carolina, and Iowa; the country songwriters this year come from New Mexico, North Carolina, New York, and Minnesota, and in the general category (we guess this category includes weird crossover genres like hip-hop-bluegrass-jam bands), the contestants hail from Maryland, Wyoming, and New York.
Panels of professional songwriters and other Nashville insiders listen to and judge the songs — last year’s judges included Peter Rowan, Bruce Robison, and Jesse Bellamy — and the proceeds from the contest support the WCC Chris Austin Memorial Scholarship. The contest has raised a total of $34,600, which has helped 84 students get into music programs since 1993.
Watch last year’s winner in the country category, Hunter and Suzy Owens, sing their winning song, “It Would Be Easier,” at luthier Wayne Henderson’s Rugby, Virginia, guitar shop. Owens is playing a Thomas Fredholm guitar.
The contest was named for Chris Austin, the late Boon, North Carolina, songwriter who died along with other members of Reba McEntire’s band when their plane crashed near San Diego in 1991. A guitarist by 9, Austin was an ambitious musician from the beginning, sneaking into a Saturday night performance of the Grand Ole Opry early on to meet Ricky Skaggs. Austin wound up in Skaggs’ band, playing guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle. While working for Skaggs, Austin attended the Country & Bluegrass program at South Plains College in Texas, where he got the opportunity to meet record executives who would sign him to a recording deal. Among his Top 100 Warner Brothers Records singles’ were “Blues Stay Away From Me,” “I Know There’s A Heart In There Somewhere,” and “Out Of Step.”
Austin’s experience studying songwriting gave him a passion for the art, and he wound up writing songs for numerous other singers, including Skaggs, who took Austin’s “Same Ol’ Love” to No. 5.
Here’s the list of 2016 Chris Austin Songwriting Competition Finalists: