Start with the obvious: Willie Nelson is always a factor. He reaches beyond genres and brings the Snoop Dogg and Julio Iglesias delegations. But most importantly, A Beautiful Time is a classic Nelson record that embodies the qualities that made Stardust iconic.

Factor in the same album’s Best Country Song-nominated “I’ll Love You Till the Day I Day,” written by Grammy winners Rodney Crowell and Chris Stapleton. Add his Solo Vocal Performance nom for “Live Forever,” the title track to New West’s Billy Joe Shaver tribute, and the Texas chapter is pretty much a lock.

Otherwise, it’s a wildly competitive year in the Country Grammy categories. The other Country Song nominees—Cody Johnson’s breakthrough “’Til You Can’t”; “Circles Around the Town,” Maren Morris’ truth-telling about chasing the dream; “Doin’ This,” Luke Combs’ declaration of why he’s so engaged; and Taylor Swift’s “I Bet You Think About Me (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)”—demonstrate the level of personal commitment and quality.

Given Morris’ Grammy-darling status and Swift’s continued Academy dominance, each draws on very specific groups beyond Nashville’s strong voting body. This makes both of them even-money favorites if Nelson doesn’t sweep.

Country Album offers a similar reality. Combs won CMA Album of the Year for Growin’ Up, while Morris’ Humble Quest measures coming into her own as a woman. Each of their albums delivered a Song of the Year nomination. Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville, a conceptual glory about small towns, is the most recent release in the category, while multiple Grammy winner Miranda Lambert is nominated for her musically adventurous Palomino, which is topping many best-of lists.

Clockwise from top left: Willie Nelson, Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, Cody Johnson, Brothers Osborne,
Taylor Swift, Zach Bryan, Ashley McBryde, Chris Stapleton, Luke Combs, Miranda Lambert

The cohesion of Morris, McBryde and Combs’ projects speaks to the power of creating actual albums. Lambert’s musical vistas and road-trip stories create a journey as much as a survey of all kinds of country. If Nelson doesn’t take it, Grammy might finally give Combs some hardware, but Texas also loves Lambert and pop goes for Morris, so this could be too close to call.

Best Country Solo Performance sees Morris and Lambert recognized for “Circles” and “In His Arms,” respectively, making each a factor, while Kelsea Ballerini is nominated for “HEARTFIRST.” But Zach Bryan, with “Something in the Orange,” is the outlier power player here. The year’s most-streamed country song by a mile, “Orange” gives the songwriter who eschews genres an edge in terms of impact—but will Nashville go for Bryan after his recent distancing tweets about the CMA Awards? Hard to say, but it’ll be fun to watch.

Ironically, when the Academy eliminated Country Vocal Event, the Best Country Duo/Group Performance became a place for pairings instead the many outstanding bands and duos who populate country music. Brothers Osborne are the only actual act nominated this year, leaving Little Big Town, Dan + Shay, Old Dominion, Midland, Maddie & Tae and more unrecognized.

What remains isn’t just a clash of the titans but a generational smackdown. Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton’s reprise of “Does He Love You?,” McEntire’s high-drama 1993 duet with Linda Davis, seems a given, except that Grammy sweepers Robert Plant and Alison Krauss are also nominated for their sigh-inducing “Going Where the Lonely Go.” As if that weren’t enough, millennial creative forces Ingrid Andress and Sam Hunt are nominated for “Wishful Drinking,” taking on ACM and CMA Vocal Event winners McBryde and Carly Pearce for “Never Wanted to Be that Girl,” while CMA and ACM Entertainers of the Year Combs and Lambert round out the category with “Outrunnin’ Your Memory.”

Do the elders cancel each other out? Do LGBTQ icons Dolly and Reba have an edge? Does the bluegrass/rock faction tip to Plant/Krauss? Can new kids Hunt and Andress prevail? Will the current EOTYs use their collective clout and dominance to take it home? Or will the voters recognize country’s most throw-it-down duo, given John Osborne’s incredible musicianship, TJ’s sonorous bass vocals and a sound that swoops down hard, sweeps people up and creates a rockin’-tonk vibe?

Again, way too close to call. If the purists vote, the duo could take the prize. The Plant & Krauss and Reba & Dolly teamings, though, are titular and beyond genre-friendly. Unless they cancel each other out, look for one of them to take home the trophy.

More Grammy Chews below.

Album of the Year
Record of the Year