Every year, at the famed Merlefest, songwriters enthusiastically via for a chance to compete for the crown as the best songwriter at the Chris Austin Songwriting contest. Now in its 27th year, the contest allows up-and-coming songwriters to perform for a panel of music industry professionals and serves to give talented songwriters exposure.
In the Bluegrass category this year, Tellico’s Anya Hinkle took home first place with ”Ballad of Zona Abston,” a song based on a true story of a woman who grew up in a mining town in middle Tennessee. Hinkle performed the song in the final round of competition at MerleFest on Friday, April 26th for judges Cruz Contreras (The Black Lillies), Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan (The Milk Carton Kids), and Radney Foster.
Hinkle’s song tells of the lack of education, health care and job security — and the poverty — that resulted when a once booming business shut down. Her longtime friend Jack Stoddart, known as ”Hippie Jack” (Jammin’ At Hippie Jack’s), invited her to meet Zona at his home on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee.
“Zona told me her life story over her kitchen table,” Hinkle said. “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,” says Hinkle.
John Doyle, the legendary Irish guitarist who produced Tellico’s recent album, Woven Waters, performed alongside Hinkle with his signature groove.
“John’s support was tremendously helpful in bringing 120% of ourselves to the song, to the audience, pouring love into every lyric, looking at each judge, at all my good friends that had come to support me, keeping Zona central in my mind,” Hinkle said.
Merlefest Tops 75,000
MerleFest remains the East Coast’s premier Americana music event as the 33rd edition came to a close on Sunday, April 28. Participation over the festival’s four days held on the campus of Wilkes Community College, in Wilkesboro, NC exceeded 75,000.
“We had an incredible weekend,” Festival Director Ted Hagaman said. “With over 100 artists on 13 stages over the four days, we again feel we succeeded in providing a quality and successful event for all involved. Preliminary numbers show we attracted thousands of fans from all over the world. We appreciate their support. This event could not happen without the work and dedication of our 4,500-plus volunteers and the many great safety and service agencies in Northwestern North Carolina. We’re already looking forward to MerleFest 2020.”
2020 event dates are April 23rd to the 26th.