Your competin’ heart

Camp Ton-A-Wandah’s rustic, cozy Little Rec Hall helps distinguish the Flat Rock Music Festival from its flourishing competition this time of year.

The cabin’s coffeehouse setting and sweet acoustics are perfect for musicians who aspire to play in the heartfelt, gritty style of late country legend Hank Williams Sr.

Finalists will put their best tune forward on Friday, May 16, in the Hank Williams Songwriting Competition, helping open the three-day festival that will feature Dark Star Orchestra’s four-hour, to-the-note tribute to the Grateful Dead, plus Peter Rowan’s current band, Reggaebilly!

Lance Mills, who won the preliminary round in the inaugural Hank Williams Songwriting Competition last fall, says the crusty cabin reminds him of Emmylou Harris’ line about a “hillbilly dust feel.” Contestants wait their turn to perform their original, unpublished songs on the lakeside building’s porch — and former competitors say the view of water and woods helps calm the nerves.

“It’s so comfortable sitting on the porch overlooking the lake, and performing inside,” says Sam Anderson of Belton, S.C., who won the contest’s overall title last year, as well as its subdivision for songs about Williams. (Former festival headliner, fiddle-mandolin wizard Sam Bush, seconds that emotion: “It’s such a beautiful setting,” he’s said. “This festival is perfect to give exposure to acoustic music, and for artists to be expressive.”)

“It’s neat we got the contest here,” continues Anderson, whose win has helped him get booked for more festival gigs. “It’s an opportunity to showcase rising talent.”

More than 50 songwriters from across the Southeast competed last fall, and a dozen finalists performed at the festival.

“The crowd was great,” notes contestant Ami Worthen of local bands Mad Tea Party and the Hula Cats. “You create music when you share that energy.”

The Flat Rock Music Festival, in some ways a mini-MerleFest, is a musician’s — as well as a listener’s — paradise: Where else can you get $5 off your ticket for bringing along a musical instrument?

The event, now entering its sixth year, has expanded its outreach to college-age patrons, Baby Boomers and families. Today there’s more up-tempo, danceable music for a younger crowd, including regional and national novelty-fusion acts that employ humor and visual art to extend their message.

“[But] the singer/songwriter is how it started,” asserts festival producer and camp owner Billy Haynes.

“We want to maintain that,” he adds, “but we’re broadening our horizons and including other types of bands that appeal to a wider audience.”

Songwriting contestants are judged on originality, lyrics and melody in styles that can range from country/pop, country/rock, bluegrass, alt-country and folk — or the more recently ubiquitous Americana umbrella common among festival performers and on WNCW FM (88.7), a main sponsor of the event.

But despite the dizzying complexity of today’s country and country-esque music categories, the ingredients that comprise a winning song are little different than when Hank Sr. mourned his lover’s cheatin’ heart, back when his hole-pierced bucket wouldn’t hold no beer.

Flat Rock’s entertainment director, Charlie Tucker, also a musician, notes that ol’ Hank had the songwriting formula down — simplicity of lyrics, economy of words and strength of emotion.

So lonesome you could cry?

The deadline for submitting a song to the Flat Rock Music Festival’s Hank Williams Songwriting Competition has been extended to Wednesday, May 14. For rules, check out Finalists will perform at the festival’s Little Rec Hall on Friday, May 16 at 4 p.m.

The Flat Rock Music Festival settles into Camp Ton-A-Wandah in Henderson County on Friday, May 16 through Sunday, May 18, 2003, and includes the Hank Williams Songwriting Competition, plus a songwriting workshop with Michael Reno Harrell, contra dancing, lake activities and food and art vendors. Headliners include Peter Rowan Reggaebilly! on Friday; Dark Star Orchestra‘s Grateful Dead tribute and Jupiter Coyote on Saturday; and Snake Oil Medicine Show on Sunday. Daily adult tickets cost $30/Friday, $40/Saturday and $15/Sunday. Weekend passes with camping cost $75 ($60/advance). Youths 11-17 get in at half price, and children 10 or younger will be admitted free with an adult. There’s a $5 discount for bringing in an instrument. Gate proceeds partly benefit Camp Merry Times (for children with cancer) at Camp Ton-a-Wandah, and projects through ECO (Environmental and Conservation Organization of Henderson County). For directions and more information, check out or call (828) 692-2005.

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