Tonight’s CMA Awards welcomes new names to the mix (Luke Combs, Midland, Chris Janson, Brett Young), leans toward critical mass (Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley, Brothers Osborne) and yet somehow embraces the year’s biggest commercial successes (Florida Georgia Line with Bebe Rexha, Dan + Shay, Thomas Rhett. Jason Aldean and “Body Like a Backroad”). While being nominated is an honor, we all know everybody wants to win.

Among the most coveted categories, Album of the Year dominates. Recognizing a body of work, in terms of sales, single achievement and the quality of music, Rhett is probably the most commercially accessible nominee with Life Changes. Keith Urban, who turned in the envelope-pushing Graffiti U, may not have the momentum this year; the same problem Bentley’s The Mountain is going to face. That leaves two-time winner Stapleton’s Songs from A Room: Volume Two facing Musgraves’ Golden Hour.

Though Stapleton is CMA kryptonite, look for the internationally reaching, crossover-leaning Golden Hour to pick up the crystal.

Single of the Year is equally formidable. While Midland’s “Drinking Problem” ushered in a return to that '70s California country-rock sound, Lambert and Aldean’s straight-up “Drowns the Whiskey” offers hardcore classicism in every sip and Stapleton’s “Broken Halos” remains #1 on my personal jukebox, this comes down to two monster singles. Can Dan + Shay’s ubiquitous “Tequila” be the single bullet to stop the multi-format straddling “Meant to Be” from Rexha + FGL? Dan + Shay’s yearning single is undeniable, but the impact of “Meant To Be,” which will probably also take Vocal Event, gives Single of the Year to the hybrid vigor of this pairing.

With seven-time Female Vocalist Lambert declaring she needed to team up with an artist “with a penis” (Aldean) to have a #1, Female Vocalist becomes even more critical. It’s the rare place where females who are having a tough time conquering country radio can stand out. Musgraves and Kelsea Ballerini are Grammy catnip, but this story comes down to Maren Morris with her stellar out-of-genre pairings and real hits’ potential; Carrie Underwood, coming off a massive Cry Pretty album launch at UMG, and Lambert, whose Pistol Annies’ Interstate Gospel just landing the #1 album slot. With Sony possibly splitting their vote with two worthy women, look for awards hostess Underwood to take home the trophy.

In the—thanks, Miranda!—“with a penis” category, it’s a different kind of horse race for Male Vocalist of the Year. Perennial favorites Bentley, Rhett, Stapleton and Urban welcome the locomotive potency of Combs, who has just notched his fourth week at #1 with “She’s Got the Best of Me,” his fourth straight chart-topper. Sometimes a young star blows in at gale force, and people notice (Clint Black or The Judds, anyone?) and Combs has that kind of momentum.

Stapleton has the town’s heart; Rhett has Scott Borchetta’s clout. But I think the unlikely kid who actually looks more like the country audience than many of our overly styled dudes could take it with a wink and a can of Miller Lite.

Duo of the Year remained a clear winner category for years. Suddenly, Brothers Osborne versus FGL became a thing, with the Brothers taking the last two years. If Dan + Shay lose Single, look for them to possibly make this award their own. Given the year they’ve had, the voters may acknowledge the success here. Group has the same kind of mojo working. Regular Vocal Group of the Year winners Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town return, but you have Single/New Artist nominees Midland breaking out, as well as Academy of Country first-time Top Vocal Group winners Old Dominion in the mix. Look for the perennial nice guys with the six-pack of #1s, Old Dominion, to make it a pair.

Entertainer of the Year is the other big one, and it’s a night of massive impact. Aldean had a big year with his Rearview Town doing massive business, including the Lambert “Drowns the Whiskey” duet; Luke Bryan flirted with stadium business and his “People Are Good” was an affirmative #1; Kenny Chesney broke 11 records at 19 stadiums, notched a #1 with songwriter/artist David Lee Murphy and dropped Songs for the Saints, an introspective album with 100% of the proceeds going to U.S. and British Islands rebuilding after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. But the big questions remain: Will the CMA give Stapleton the one award he has not won? Will they acknowledge triple ACM Entertainer of the Year Aldean? Or recognize the multi-phase impact of four-time CMA Entertainer Chesney’s year? This one I’m just not gonna call.

Finally, New Artist—formerly the Horizon Award, which recognizes any artist who displayed exceptional career growth—is just as tough to call. With Combs, Janson and Midland having multiple major nominations, this hardly feels like a newcomer award category. Rounded out by chart-toppers Brett Young and lone female Lauren Alaina, every single one of these artists is qualified to take home the statue. Given Combs’ momentum, though, look for the Asheville, North Carolinian to make it a double.

His first stop at the top (5/6a)
Khaled gets another party started. (5/6a)
A heartwarming virtual hook-up (5/6a)
Vaxxed and masked, Nicole ventures out. (5/6a)
The Great White Way begins to repopulate. (5/6a)
The musical tapestry we know as R&B.
Predicting the next big catalog deal.
Once we all get vaccinated, how long before we can party?
How is globalization bringing far-flung territories into the musical mainstream?

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