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Boone Musician Among Finalists Selected for MerleFest’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest

Finalists have been selected for the annual Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, hosted by MerleFest 2015. Now in its 23rd year, the contest is an extraordinary opportunity for aspiring writers to have their original songs heard and judged by a panel of music industry professionals, under the direction of this year’s volunteer contest chairperson, Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale. MerleFest 2015, presented by Window World, takes place from April 23-26 on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C.

Writers of the following 12 songs, selected from over 639 entries, will compete on the Austin Stage in Alumni Hall at MerleFest on Friday, April 24:


Donna Hughes (Trinity, N.C.) – “Blackbeard”

Buddy Guido (Mohawk, N.Y.) and Paul Kelly (Santa Fe, N.M.)– “Deer in the Headlights Look”

David Morris (Gaithersburg, Md.), Mitch Matthews (Hamtramck, Mich.) and Dawn Kenney (Waltham, Mass.) – “Something About A Train”


Robert Holthauser (Popular Springs, N.C.) and Rick Pardue (Popular Springs, N.C.) – “Brother Paul”

Benjamin Lauckhaupt (West Harrison, Ind.) – “Oh, Lazarus”

Dave Herring (Charlottesville, Va.) – “Though I Walk”


Hunter and Suzy Owens (Sydney, Australia) – “It Would Be Easier”

Savannah Smith (Asheville, N.C.) – “Mississippi”

Carri Smithey (Burlington, N.C.), Josh Coe (Saxapahaw, N.C.), Ryan Burgess (Burlington, N.C.) and Keith Ingalls (Burlington, N.C.)  – “No More.”


Kristen Grainger of True North Band (Salem, Ore.) – “Doris Dean”

Laura Kaufman (Boone, N.C.) – “Through the Grave”

Carter Sampson (Oklahoma City, Okla.) – “Wild Bird”

Each of the 12 finalists will enjoy admission and lodging for three nights at MerleFest and receive a songwriting workshop with Jim Lauderdale, Jesse Bellamy, Peter Rowan and Bruce Robinson. As the grand prize, renowned label Pinecastle Records will present a one-song contract to each first place winner in all categories – bluegrass, gospel/inspirational, country and general categories – along with$500 to record their winning songs. Then Pinecastle Records will manufacture a four-song compilation CD of the winning songs and distribute it to radio stations across the United States and Canada. The first place winners will also receive $500 cash from MerleFest and a performance slot on the Cabin Stage on Friday night of the festival.

The first-round judges were: Singer/songwriter/musician Tift Merritt; David Mayfield, singer/songwriter/musician and Grammy-nominated producer; Joe Lurgio, Tenbooks Media; Ashlee-Jean Trott of Music City Roots; Judy McDonough of JEMMedia; Megan Bedford of Sugar Hill Records; singer/songwriter/musician Jason Lee McKinney; Whitney Holmes of the Americana Music Association; and singer/songwriter/musician Joseph Terrell, who is a member of Mipso and won the CASC general category last year for his song “Angelina Jane is Long Gone.” Tift Merritt won MerleFest’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest in 2000 and served as a first-round judge at MerleFest 2014.

Critically-acclaimed Americana artist Jesse Bellamy, famed Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison and legendary bluegrass icon Peter Rowan will judge the on-site final round of this year’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest.

Judging is based on a song¹s originality, lyrics, melody and overall commercial potential. The contest is open to those whose primary source of income (50 percent or more) is not derived from songwriting or publishing.

Net proceeds from the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest help support the Wilkes Community College Chris Austin Memorial Scholarship. Since its inception the scholarship has awarded over $38,000 to 81 deserving students.

For more details about the contest, visit www.MerleFest.org/ChrisAustinSongwritingContest


MerleFest, considered one of the premier music festivals in the country, is an annual homecoming of musicians and music fans held on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. MerleFest was founded in 1988 in memory of the son of the late American music legend Doc Watson, renowned guitarist Eddy Merle Watson. MerleFest is a celebration of “traditional plus” music, a unique mix of music based on the traditional, roots-oriented sounds of the Appalachian region, including bluegrass and old-time music, and expanded to include Americana, country, blues, rock and many other styles. The festival hosts a diverse mix of artists on its 13 stages during the course of the four-day event. The annual event has become the primary fundraiser for the WCC Endowment Corporation, funding scholarships, capital projects and other educational needs.

About Chris Austin:

Chris Austin, from Boone, North Carolina, worked as a sideman for Ricky Skaggs for three years, singing and playing guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle. During that time he was discovered by executives at Warner Bros. Nashville, who offered him a recording contract. While releasing singles including “Blues Stay Away From Me,” “I Know There’s a Heart in There Somewhere” and “Out of Step,” Austin also developed his songwriting skills, as evidenced in “Same Ol’ Love,” recorded by Skaggs in 1991. On March 16, 1991, Austin’s life was cut tragically short when the private plane carrying him and six other members of Reba McEntire’s band, as well as her tour manager, crashed in the mountains near San Diego. Pete Fisher, then of Warnersongs and currently general manager of the Grand Ole Opry, and Kari Estrin, then MerleFest consultant and “Pickin’ for Merle” video associate producer, initiated the songwriting contest to honor Austin’s memory.