Chris Austin Songwriting Contest winners for 2019

Last Friday during MerleFest in North Carolina, the finals of the 2019 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest were held before a panel of judges, live on stage. As is done each year at this prestigious competition, the top three finalists in each of four categories had been announced some weeks earlier, and they all arrived at the festival to sing it out to establish the rankings.

First place winners were given the opportunity to perform their song on Friday evening on stage, with a full set on Saturday. They each also received a box of D’Addario strings, Shubb capos, $600 in cash, and the chance to record their song with Saloon Studios Live. Second and third place writers received strings, capos, and a lesser cash award.

When the results were tabulated, the winners were:


  1. Anya Hinkle (Asheville, NC) – Ballad of Zona Abston
  2. James E. Woolsey (Petersburg, IN), David Foster (Petersburg, IN) – Sugar Ridge Road
  3. Wyatt Espalin (Hiawassee, GA) – Light Coming Through


  1. Andrew Millsaps (Ararat, NC) – Ain’t No Genie (In a Bottle of Jack)
  2. Hannah Kaminer (Asheville, NC) – Don’t Open Your Heart
  3. Shannon Wurst (Fayetteville, AR) – Better Than Bourbon


  1. Alexa Rose (Asheville, NC) – Medicine for Living
  2. Bryan Elijah Smith (Dayton, VA) – In Through the Dark
  3. Wright Gatewood (Chicago, IL) – First


  1. Russ Parrish (Burnsville, MN), Topher King (Savage, MN) – Washed By The Water
  2. Ashleigh Caudill (Nashville, TN), Jon Weisberger (Cottontown, TN) – Walkin’ Into Gloryland
  3. Kevin T. Hale- (Brentwood, TN) – We All Die to Live Again

Anya Hinkle shared a few words about the true life story of her winning bluegrass entry, Ballad of Zona Abston.

“Zona told me her life story over her kitchen table. It illustrates her strong will to survive through decades of crisis, stress and difficulty and reflects the desperation of struggling people, particularly women. When you really listen to what someone’s been through, you naturally develop a lot of compassion for what people have to deal with in this world. It was a story I had to put to song.

On my way to the contest I had called Zona to tell her I was about to sing our song for the competition. She said ‘OK honey I’ll be a-prayin’ for ya. That should help.’ But honestly the reason I called Zona was to help remind myself that the real power of this song is her story, which she had to live every day of.”

Here’s phone video of Anya’s winning performance. 

Congratulations all!

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.