Merlefest, an upcoming music festival set for September 16-19 in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, is gearing up for their yearly songwriting contest. The 29th annual Chris Austin Songwriting Contest will take place on September 17.
The competition is named after Chris Austin, a young artist from Boone, North Carolina, who played guitar for Ricky Skaggs and Reba McEntire. Austin went on to release several solo singles, including “Blues Stay Away From Me,” which hit No. 54 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1989. Austin tragically passed away in the 1991 plane crash that killed six other members of Reba’s band—Paula Evans, Terry Jackson, Kirk Cappello, Michael Thomas, Anthony Saputo, Joey Cigainero—and her tour manager Jim Hammon.
In order to commemorate Austin’s love for the art of songwriting and his influence in the music world, the songwriting contest was initiated in his name nearly 30 years ago. The proceeds from the competition help to support the WCC Chris Austin Memorial Scholarship, established in 1993 to award scholarship money to aspiring songwriters. The scholarship has helped over 100 students, awarding over $47,100 to date.
The songwriting contest this year will be a little different from a typical Chris Austin Contest. Three finalists from each of the four separate categories will take to the stage for a final performance at Merlefest, but instead of just one round of finalists, there will be two. Since the final performance could not take place last year due to COVID, both 2020 and 2021 final rounds will commence this year.
A winner will be chosen from each of the four categories: Bluegrass, Country, General and Gospel/Inspirational. In previous years, the competition brought many burgeoning stars to the surface, such as Gillian Welch, Tift Merritt and Adrienne Young. The talented performers aren’t the only exciting guests at the contest, as notable members of the music industry will be the judges of the competition. This years judges include: Dolph Ramseur (manager/record label owner), Amethyst Kiah (singer/songwriter), Daren & Brooke Aldridge (performer duo) and The Milk Carton Kids (band).
Merlefest’s director, Ted Hagaman, is eager to put on the festival and songwriting competition after the year of shut downs. He wants to assure festival-goers that they have been hard at work to adapt the festival and make all audience members comfortable. “We’ve been working with authorities on making sure that we keep our festival safe, and meeting all state guidelines. And we feel very comfortable about that,” Hagaman tells American Songwriter. “I think our fans will be pleased with some of the changes that will help to get more people to kind of spread things out.” And in a true, southern spirit he added, “We will count on everybody to look out for each other.”
The seats to view the final performances at the songwriting competition are on a first-come first-serve basis, and the contest always brings a sold-out, packed house. You can get your tickets for Merlefest to attend the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest here. Additionally, you can view the festival line-up here.