Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Chris Austin might never have gotten the attention he deserved for his musical talents had he not sneaked backstage at the Grand Ole Opry one night to meet one of his heroes, Ricky Skaggs. Within a short period of time, Chris was working as a sideman in Skaggs’ band, and he later worked with Reba McEntire as well.
Chris Austin grew up in Boone, and was known as a shy and quiet young man. He started playing guitar before he was 10 years old, and he was playing in his father’s bluegrass band by the time he was 14. During this time period, Chris learned to play several instruments, including banjo, mandolin, and fiddle. An old classmate, Rick Ward says, “Chris walked into the woods one day with a fiddle, and when he walked out, he could play that thing. That’s the way Chris was.”
Chris brought all of his skills to Ricky Skaggs’ band, playing guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle, and singing. Around this time, executives at Warner Brothers in Nashville discovered Chris, and he was offered a recording contract. He released several singles including “Blues Stay Away from Me,” “I Know There’s a Heart in There Somewhere,” and “Out of Step.” Chris also wrote “Same Ol’ Love,” which Skaggs recorded in 1991 for Epic Records, and which went on to become a Top-Five hit. Later, Chris started focusing on his songwriting and performing as part of Reba McEntire’s band.
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 Warner Songs and currently general manager of the Grand Ole Opry, and Kari Estrin, then MerleFest consultant and Pickin’ for Merle associate producer, initiated a contest to honor Chris’ memory. The Chris Austin Songwriting Contest began in 1993, and winners have included Gillian Welch, Michael Reno Harrell, Martha Scanlan, Tift Merritt, David Via, Adrienne Young, Johnny Williams.