MerleFest's Chris Austin Contest Lifts Aspiring Songwriters

Jesse Winchester, Jim Lauderdale, Gillian Welch rate this year's contestants.

WILKESBORO, N.C. — Each spring, this Smoky Mountain foothill town becomes host to hundreds of singers and songwriters who make the trek to be part of a four-day celebration of American music known as MerleFest.

Well-known writers such as Willie Nelson, Nanci Griffith, Laurie Lewis, Darrell Scott, Claire Lynch and John Hartford shared their songs from the Watson stage at this year's festival, as tens of thousands of fans looked on.

Lesser-known writers, meanwhile, vied for a chance at recognition from their peers and industry leaders in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, sponsored this year in part by Country Music Television, Writer's Digest Songwriter's Market and D'Addario Strings.

The contest is named in honor of North Carolina native Chris Austin, whose songs were recorded by Ricky Skaggs. Austin was working as a member of Reba McEntire's band when he was killed in an airplane crash in 1991.

Every year, writers from all over the world begin sending in tapes of their best songs months before the contest. Initial judging narrows down the roster, and the three top finalists get to showcase their songs for a panel of celebrity judges at MerleFest.

This year, one of those judges was Jesse Winchester, who was as excited about meeting fellow judge Jim Lauderdale as he was about evaluating the new songs.

"I got that Patty Loveless/George Jones duet that Jim Lauderdale wrote, "You Don't Seem to Miss Me," and just put it on repeat — I must've played it 20 times. Now that is a country song," Winchester said.

The third judge this year was Gillian Welch, who was a winner as a then-unknown in the inaugural contest in 1993.

Last year's winners included Nashville resident Henry Hipkens, whose latest song, "Stranger Things Have Happened," is featured on bluegrass artist Claire Lynch's new release on Rounder, Love Light.

Lauderdale, Winchester and Welch gave nods to Jason Harrod of North Carolina in the bluegrass category, the songwriting team of Jeff Barbra and Sarah Turkel of Knoxville, Tenn., in gospel, Carla Gover of West Virginia in the general category, and Tift Merrit of North Carolina for her country song "Blue Motel."

"Winning contests can really boost your career, especially when you're just starting out. It helps give you confidence and gets people listening to your music, too," said Tish Hinojosa, who won a similar contest at the renowned Kerrville Music Festival in Texas in 1979.

Gavin Americana editor Jessie Scott agrees, and also picked Merrit as her choice as MerleFest's outstanding new artist. "I think Tift's just going to be huge. She has a wonderful voice and a great stage presence," Scott said.