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Judges announced for MerleFest songwriting contest

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Article Published: Jan. 24, 2013 | Modified: Jan. 24, 2013
Judges announced for MerleFest songwriting contest

Matraca Berg
Photos submitted

Distinguished songwriters Matraca Berg, Lynda Dawson and Chris Smither will be among the judges that determine the winners of MerleFest 2013’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest.

Now in its 21st year, the contest is an 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 chairman, Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale. MerleFest takes place from April 25 to 28.

Berg, Dawson and Smither bring an impressive body of critical and chart success to the judges’ table for this year’s contest.

Renowned singer-songwriter Matraca Berg, inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008, penned her first No. 1 single at age 18 and received her first Grammy nomination at age 22.
Berg has written major hits for Reba McEntire (“The Last One to Know”), Linda Ronstadt (“Walk On”), Trisha Yearwood (“Wrong Side of Memphis,” “XXX’s and OOO’s/An American Girl,” “Everybody Knows”), Deana Carter (“Strawberry Wine,” “We Danced Anyway”), Martina McBride (“Wild Angels,” “Cry on the Shoulder of the Road”), Faith Hill, Patty Loveless, Suzy Bogguss, Gretchen Wilson and many others.

“Strawberry Wine,” Deana Carter’s breakthrough hit, won CMA “Song of the Year” honors. Berg, along with Carter, wrote 2011’s platinum-selling “You and Tequila,” a duet by Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter that scored two Grammy nominations and was one of the top country songs of that year.

A respected artist in her own right, Berg’s critically acclaimed “The Dreaming Fields” was released in 2011; Rolling Stone said of the project that “the melodies and hooks remain as irresistible as ever… This is the sound of a writer who seems more concerned with making tradition her own than with who might follow her.”

Lynda Dawson is the lead singer, guitar player and songwriter for Raleigh-based bluegrass and Americana outfit The Kickin Grass Band. Her true-to-life songwriting, distinct vocals and tasteful guitar have been a hallmark of the band’s Americana and rootsy sound since their start in 2002.
Dawson has been described by PopMatters as writing “distinctive originals … with an ear for a catchy melody, as well as interesting turns of phrase,” and by Nashville Public Radio as a “truly gifted songwriter who writes intelligently crafted lyrics married to unforgettable melodies.”

In addition to being a mainstay of the band’s four albums, including the 2012 release, “Walk With Me,” her songs have been recorded by Valerie Smith and Becky Buller, aired on PBS’s nationally syndicated “Song of the Mountains” and NPR’s “CarTalk” and licensed for various North Carolina-based projects. She teaches songwriting camps and workshops for kids and adults and was a featured songwriter at the International Bluegrass Music Association Songwriter Showcase in both 2007 and 2012.

Having distilled his own signature sound of blues and folk for more than 40 years, Chris Smither is truly an American original. A profound songwriter, Smither has drawn deeply from such diverse influences as the blues, American folk music, and modern poets and philosophers during his lengthy career.

From his early days as a New Orleans transplant in the Boston folk scene to his reemergence in the 1990s as one of America’s most distinctive acoustic performers, Smither continues to hone his characteristic sound. Smither’s songs have been covered by artists, such as Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt and Diana Krall.

Reviewers praise his guitar work, gravelly voice and songwriting, with The New York Times saying, “With a weary, well-traveled voice and a serenely intricate finger-picking style, Mr. Smither turns the blues into songs that accept hard-won lessons and try to make peace with fate.

Rolling Stone writes, “Smither’s roots are as blue as they come,” and, according to Wired, “The masterful combination of pure folk songwriting and intricate guitar blues are tangible signs of the singer-songwriter’s vigorous genius.”

His 2012 release, “Hundred Dollar Valentine,” is his first recording to feature all Smither-penned, original songs.

Contest entries for the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest are accepted via two methods: U.S. Mail (P.O. Box 121855, Nashville, TN 37212) and Sonicbids ( The deadline for submissions is Feb. 19.
The first round of the CASC competition takes place in Nashville, Tenn., and is narrowed down to 12 finalists representing four categories: bluegrass, country, general and gospel/inspirational. Finalists are then invited to the final round of the competition, which takes place during MerleFest on the campus of Wilkes Community College.

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 more than $36,000 to 75 deserving students.

To learn more details about the contest, visit

About Chris Austin

Chris Austin, from Boone, 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, Calif.

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.

About MerleFest

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.

MerleFest was founded in 1988 in memory of the late Eddy Merle Watson, son of American music legend Doc Watson, who died May 29, 2012. 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 more than 90 artists, performing on 14 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.

Additional Images

Matraca Berg
Photos submitted

Lynda Dawson

Chris Smither

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