Tuesday, April 28, 2009

MerleFest: The 17th annual Chris Austin Songwriting Contest

On Friday while exploring the grounds, I stumbled upon the Austin stage which was just preparing to host the finals for the 17th annual Chris Austin Songwriting Contest. I decided to have a seat and for the next 90 minutes heard better songs than those played on the popular airwaves. From a collection of unknown artists nonetheless. The contest is named in honor of famed songwriter, Chris Austin, who perished in a 1991 plane crash along with other members of Reba McEntire's band.

The contest is open to all songwriters and 840 entries were submitted this year. Many now popular artists received their first big break from this contest: Gillian Welch, Tift Merritt, Michael Reno Harrell, Adrienne Young, and Martha Scanlan. And proceeds from the entrance fee support the Wilkes Community College Chris Austin Memorial Scholarship.

The 840 entries are allocated to several categories: Bluesgrass, Country, Gospel, General. The songs were judged by a panel of other songwriters, publishers, executives, music professionals - the usual suspects. This panel narrowed the field to just three songwriters within each category, and that is who I heard perform on that stage. Jim Lauderdale was the 2009 and he was joined by the distinguished and entertaining judges: Leonard Podolak of The Duhks, Tift Merritt, and John Lohman, Program Director of the Virginia Folk Life Program at the Virginia Foundation of the Humanities.

The contest lead off with the Bluegrass category with Cobi Ferguson & Wyatt Espalin (Trees Leave), Carol Hausner, and Brink Brinkman. This was the most difficult category where, from our opinion, there was no clear winner. And it was difficult to categorize the songs. Ferguson & Espalin song was the most traditional bluegrass, whereas Hausner's seemed more country and Brinkman's more alt-country. In fact, I envision Chris Knight making his "Old Coal Mine" a hit. In the end the judges deemed that Carol Hauser had penned the best song.

The Gospel category, like every category, contained three great songs; this time by Richard Henry, Jo Ellen Doering, and once again Brink Brinkman. Nice to have two songs selected to the finals. And to us, and obviously the judges, Brinkman's was the clear favorite: Beyond the Rain. Lookout for this song and this songwriter.

The country category contained another clear winner, with perhaps one of the best individual songs I heard the entire festival: Dennis Duff's "A Man of Few Words". I don't know if being a relatively new dad had in influence, but this song mesmerized myself as well as the judges. This will be a hit. Sorry Lloyd Wood and Tonya Lowman.

The final category was the catch all and was where we heard our first blues of the weekend, from winner Miles and Letha Costin who perform with Greg Bockover as the Transzenders. The Costin's had home field advantage from being from Raleigh and being regulars at the Merlefest open jam coffeehouse. Plus there song, "Unmarked Pavement", was pretty cool. Ron Fetner's "Carolina Rain" was also a good song as was John Smith's "I Will Fly". To bad someone has to win.

The Chris Austin Songwriting Contest was a great place to start the festival - witnessing the songs and stars of tomorrow. If you or someone you know is an aspiring songwriter, this is where to start.


Anonymous said...

Woo Hoo!! Way to go Dennis!!!!

And a big thank you to the owner of this blog for posting this so those of us who were not able to attend can see what went on!

MyJoog said...

Thanks. We will have more cover published all week so check back.