Country and the Grammys—few things confound Music City quite as much. But every country artist out there wants one. Every year, there’s an outlier—like Tanya Tucker’s Brandi Carlile/Shooter Jennings-produced return, hardcore Sturgill Simpson or Texas’ Pat Green—and 2022 is no exception.

Zach Bryan, who recently played to 50,000 at ACL Fest, is in position to be this year’s outsider. The Navy vet’s raw recordings have struck a nerve as tracks from American Heartbreak have surpassed 1.8 billion streams, while “Something in the Orange” has become a breakthrough crossover hit. Beyond Country Album, Song and Solo Performance, look for him to crack the Big Four, too.

Texas-outsider energy surges through ACM Top New Male Parker McCollum and Cody Johnson, whose “’Til You Can’t” is one of 2022’s biggest songs. Bailey Zimmerman’s more rugged take on dude country also hits a chord with “Fall in Love,” as does Cole Swindell’s four-week #1, “She Had Me at Heads Carolina.” The ultimate outsider remains Morgan Wallen, who’s returning to awards contention. Look long and hard at “Wasted on You.” If his mea culpa’s served, his massive impact could land him in Big Four categories as well as country. The domestic-violence retributive “Wait in the Truck” from Big Loud labelmate and ACM Songwriter of the Year HARDY is buzzing; will its issue-forward impact put the song and the man in country contention? Possibly. Voters like meaning.

Once again, the women cascade in with the really progressive work. Miranda Lambert’s Palomino and “If I Was a Cowboy” bring a Beyoncé-like striving to country; having made what’s easily the year’s best, most interesting album, Lambert should show hard.

But Maren Morris’s Humble Quest, Hailey WhittersEverything She Ain’t and Lainey Wilson’s Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’ also stand tall, as does Ashley McBryde’s Lindeville. Creative, envelope-pushing, the women are creating genuinely interesting projects, singles and collaborations. Grammy fave Ingrid Andress’ chart-topping duet with Sam Hunt, “Wishful Drinking,” feels like a lock.

Speaking of locks: Queen Carrie Underwood brings those powerhouse vocals to Denim & Rhinestones, her latest co-produced gem. She also teams with Jason Aldean for the emotive “If I Didn’t Love You,” which feels like a blockbuster in any genre. With her gospel bona fides and big rock looks (Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith), Underwood could contend in all the genre categories as well. Others to watch include ACM/CMA Female Vocalist Carly Pearce on the back end of her 29: Written in Stone project, CMA/ACM Vocal Group institution Old Dominion and tasteful, harmony-forward Little Big Town. As always, watch out for Chris Stapleton, whose work transcends.

Beyond those faves, look for progressive West Coast traditionalists Midland and Jon Pardi, who teamed for the spirited “Longneck Way to Go,” to find favor with Academy voters.

The big question remains: What about Luke Combs and Kane Brown? Consistently country’s biggest sellers/streamers/touring acts, they’ve created their own kinds of country that, like Zach Bryan, speak to “the people.” Will the massive “Doin’ It” bring Combs—who writes with his own crew, not the Row Pack—the respect some think he deserves? Will Brown’s more “traditional modern” Different Man reap the nominations his adventurousness seems to have warranted? Then there’s “Thank God,” a duet with his wife, Katelyn Brown.

On the Americana tip, look for the wonderful John Prine tribute Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows, Vol. 2 to sweep up myriad nominations, with Tyler Childers, Emmylou Harris, Amanda Shires, Jason Isbell and Bonnie Raitt among the contributors. Additionally, The War & Treaty are making soul moves that are captivating everyone who sees them. Don’t be surprised to see them popping up as well.