Just as the American Music Awards and the Grammy Awards are different, so, too, are the Academy of Country Music—the West Coast-based country-music organization that’s more about “the bars,” says Dwight Yoakam—and the more traditionally leaning, Nashville-based Country Music Association. The Academy is more progressive and in touch with the tastes of the fans—for decades, many artists won their first major awards at the ACMs. Chairman Bob Romeo admits, “If Chris Stapleton had had those nominations—and I’m not sure he would have with our voting body—I don’t know that he’d’ve won” the CMA Album, Male Vocalist and Best New Artist awards.

With a sea change rolling in, plenty of new names are appearing in big categories. Brett Eldredge, Chris Stapleton, Kelsea Ballerini (already named Best New Female), Jana Kramer, Old Dominion (voted Best New Vocal Group), Chris Young (nominated for the Album and Single I’m Comin’ Over/“I’m Comin’ Over”), Thomas Rhett (Album for Tangled Up, Song for “Die a Happy Man”), Sam Hunt (Album for Montevallo, Single for “Take Your Time”), Chris Janson (Single for “Buy Me a Boat”) and Cam (Single, Song and Video of the Year for “Burning House”) are all picking up major and in many cases multiple nominations.

With Stapleton earning six nominations (and winning Best New Male) and Eric Church taking five nods, the ACM maintains its maverick position in the country-awards race. Though Stapleton might not have broken through here without the CMA torque, his kind of real, raw country, once heard on mainstream Country radio, is exactly what the ACM voting body likes.

Entertainer of the Year

After the controversy over turning Entertainer of the Year into a fan-voted award in 2008—a move that engaged the fans but discounted the work, the music, the breadth of an artist’s commitment to the genre that had always been the standard for the award in what was basically a fan-popularity contest—Entertainer returns to being an industry-voted award.

Plenty of folks would love to see a woman “take” the night’s big prize. Miranda Lambert has always walked the line between critical acclaim and commercial success. With Platinum approaching platinum, this might be the year—especially if old-guard votes for Garth Brooks dent reigning Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan’s hold on the trophy, the Awards’ co-host and the only act truly playing stadiums in this line up. Eric Church is the outlier, and upsets at the ACMs happen.

BET ON: Luke Bryan. He headlined stadiums. Sold millions. Had hits. And people like him.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean has won this award for three straight years. Representing the hard-hitting male who seems to anchor today’s country, Aldean has quietly become an industry standard—and someone to not just watch, but bet on. The question here: Can Stapleton’s CMA momentum, killer Saturday Night Live appearance and Grammy wins carry here? Or is he too hip for the more meat-and-potatoes honky-tonk room? It’s a jump ball. Perennial credster Dierks Bentley and the smoother than smooth Eldredge fill out the category.

If there’s an upset, it could be Church. His five nominations, bold move with the iTunes drop of Mr. Misunderstood following his CMA Awards performance and continued outlier stance may get the nod for working so far beyond convention—and eliciting a passion from fans few acts do.

BET ON: Aldean. He wants Entertainer, but a fourth Male Vocalist win is nothing to sneeze at.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Yes, Carrie Underwood is a supernova, and she cranks out singles that will melt your face off. Kacey Musgraves, the critics’ darling, has a tricky time in these mainstream country voting booths—in spite of killer TV moments, Grammys and touring with everyone from Katy Perry to Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss. With newcomers Kramer and Ballerini “happy to be here” nominations, watch Miranda—who delivered an impossibly moving CMA Female Vocalist acceptance speech in November—look to make it an unprecedented seventh ACM Female Vocalist in a row.

BET ON: Miranda Lambert. Beyond a shadow of a doubt! With an Entertainer and Vocal Event for “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” with Little Big Town, she’s got the music, the business and the industry on her side.

Album of the Year

This one may turn out to be the biggest shape-shifter of the categories. Four of the five nominees are picking up their first major nominations, and Album of the Year is highly competitive. Cindy Mabe’s boys like coloring outside the lines—as urban country’s Sam Hunt, rock-driver outlaw Eric Church and old school Southern hippie/country/bluesman Chris Stapleton all notch nominations for projects that struck a nerve with consumers with Montevallo, Mr. Misunderstood and Traveller. Longstanding modern traditionalist Chris Young and potential new heart-throb Thomas Rhett—who has a career single in “Die a Happy Man” following up the #1 “Crash and Burn”—make major strides just getting nominated.

BET ON: Almost too close to call, but... If the Academy is going to recognize Stapleton in only one category, this will be the one. It allows them to acknowledge that the former Steeldriver frontman, who’s written hits for Bryan, Lambert, Bentley, Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton and, yes, Adele, is having a massive year and has always made music his priority.

Vocal Group

It’s Little Big Town’s world—and we’re just living in it. With the outsized success of “Girl Crush,” the other able-bodied groups can’t touch that. Zac Brown remains his own country, plying hit singles but not connecting to this voting body, while Rascal Flatts seeks to regain momentum, Old Dominion is just getting established and The Eli Young Band proves Texas still has an impact on how these votes get cast.

BET ON: Little Big Town. It’s been a flawless year for the quadruple nominees, whose Karen Fairchild picked up a fifth nomination for her duet with Luke Bryan in Vocal Event for “Home Alone Tonight.”

Single of the Year

Five of the six nominees are riding breakthrough singles into the category. Cam’s unlikely stark soul-breaker “Burning House” sits next to good ole boy next door Chris Janson’s “Buy Me a Boat,” Hunt’s girl-positive “Take Your Time” and Young’s neo-bootie call “I’m Comin’ Over.” Rhett has a career-defining moment in the love-affirming “Die a Happy Man,” but it’s most likely too fresh to stop LBT’s “Girl Crush,” which is a freight train on a steep downhill grade.

BET ON: “Girl Crush.” This should mark the Trifecta for the Grammy Best Duo or Group Country Vocal Performance and CMA Single of the Year.

Song of the Year

It’s hard to imagine anything coming between “Girl Crush” co-writers Lori McKenna/Liz Rose/Hillary Lindsey and a third Song of the Year Award. Since the controversy emerged about a potentially Sapphic love song—not the case, but prurience rules—“Girl Crush” has been the little harmony-strewn record that could. Cam’s “Burning House”—co-written with Jeffrey Bhasker and Tyler Johnson—had the same stark and chilling effect, but lacks this incredible momentum. Stapleton’s bluesy song of anti-recrimination, “Nobody to Blame”—co-written with hardcore bluegrassers Barry Bales and Ronnie Bowman—is perhaps the most urgent and interesting, but nothing can stop the “Crush.”

BET ON: “Girl Crush.” Juggernauts are for a reason—and the seasoned trio of co-writers here couldn’t be better loved within the community. •