Chris Austin is perhaps better known today for the contest that bears his name than for being the graceful singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who died in the plane crash that took the lives of several members of Reba McEntire’s touring band in 1991. Austin was a Boone, North Carolina, favorite son, and MerleFest, held in nearby Wilkesboro, decided to name a contest in honor of the songwriter. In a story often told, a 26-year-old Gillian Welch placed first in the festival’s inaugural contest. That was in 1993, and it’s still an important footnote in the contest’s 17-year history. With so many contests for aspiring songwriters, having a patron saint like Welch to loom over the proceedings each year at MerleFest hopefully brings some light of inspiration to the performers.
After taking first place in the Gospel category in 2009, Mark “Brink” Brinkman decided to set his sights on the Bluegrass category for the 2010 contest. His winning entry, “Carolina Dust,” is “kind of an angry song,” Brinkman says, half chuckling. It’s based on a great uncle who died at the age of 99, having outlived many friends and family members. “It’s the devil’s curse to live this long,” his uncle once said to him. The line resonated with Brinkman and formed the impetus for the song. (The line also begins the song’s third verse.)
In a twist in which Gillian Welch would probably approve, Brinkman says he identifies with the darker side of songwriting. “Some people write love songs,” he says. “I write killing stories.” In the history of folk music and bluegrass, he says, there’s always been a darker element. “You’ve got gospel to bring you up, and this other part to bring you down.” Brinkman tapped into his family’s connection with the land—he comes from a long line of farmers—for the ace lines: “Everyday I cuss this land/ But it’s a love hate thing you wouldn’t understand.”
With more than 100 cuts on his resume recorded by bluegrass artists, Brinkman says it’s a humbling experience. “Whether it’s a local or regional band or a major artist, to have anyone think that much of a song that they would put it on an album just tickles me to death.”
Mark Wayne Glasmire is hoping for a second shot at mainstream success. Following a 10-year stint in Nashville that began in the ‘90s and ended in a major label deal that fell through, Glasmire packed up for Arlington, Texas. The red dirt music scene is inspiring, Glasmire says, listing contemporaries like Hayes Carll and Pat Green; and of course the legends of Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and others loom large in the Texas canon.
Glasmire says his song “You Opened My Eyes,” which placed first in the Country category in the 2010 contest, is based on a true story. After a 25-year relationship ended, Glasmire had “an awakening” when he became involved with a person who finally supported his passion for music. Another relationship clicked when Glasmire met Nashville producer John Albani. With a long list of production and engineering credits, Albani was the perfect guy to helm Glasmire’s new career focus. At Sonic Eden, Albani’s Nashville studio, they recorded Mark’s recent album, Life Goes On. Following the contest win, Glasmire’s team is hoping to break “You Opened My Eyes” at radio. “It’s such a tough business, especially for an independent trying to compete with the major labels,” says Brinkman. “But I’m still a purist in that I believe it’s about the song. I’m hoping that this song is strong enough that people will want to hear it.”
David Tew won the Gospel category for his song “On The Winning Side” and Liz Longley won for her song “Rush” in the General category.
Stay tuned for videos of the winners.