It's dubbed "country music's biggest night," and the honor is, to many, more important than a Grammy. The 48th annual CMA Awards are this Wednesday, November 5th, featuring the genre's most elite stars. For the first time in a long time, the unpredictable categories outweigh the predictable. So our CMA forecast was tough to craft, but here are our picks for who will walk away with the coveted awards… along with who should win.
The five albums competing for the night's second-biggest prize are Crash My Party by Luke Bryan, Platinum by Miranda Lambert, Riser by Dierks Bentley, The Outsiders by Eric Church and Fuse by Keith Urban.
Who Will Win: Though Church's The Outsiders has earned the biggest raves from music critics, it stretches the meaning of "country" perhaps a bit too much for many mainstream crowds. That leaves room for Lambert's Platinum to sweep the prize. Sassy, powerful, and peroxide pretty, Platinum took off with "Automatic" and kept flying high thanks to "Somethin' Bad." Lambert's records present a coherent point-of-view, and the bad-girl-turned-married-woman narrative made Platinum a highly enjoyable listen all the way through.
Who Should Win: Dierks Bentley's Riser isn't some sparse, indie record, but compared to some of his competitors' mega-produced discs, Riser stands out as a stripped-back collection ("Drunk on a Plane" notwithstanding) that showcases more traditional country instrumentation than most mainstream artists would ever think to feature. It's chock-full of hearty, introspective songs that merit recognition.
In what may be the closest category of the night, five smash hits are duking it out: Blake Shelton's "Mine Would Be You," Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's "Meanwhile Back at Mama's," Dierks Bentley's "Drunk on a Plane," Eric Church's "Give Me Back My Hometown" and Miranda Lambert's "Automatic."
Who Will Win: This one is a toss-up. "Drunk On a Plane" elevated bro-country tropes into something surprisingly winsome. "Automatic" appeals to simpler times. "Give Me Back My Hometown" reflected on a break-up with a fresh song structure. "Meanwhile Back at Mama's" felt as cozy as a slice of apple pie. "Mine Would Be You" was the finest song on Shelton's CMA-winning Based on a True Story… album, and although it wasn't his biggest hit, there's a good chance that votes will be split so evenly between the nominees, that Shelton's consistent popularity with CMA voters will give his song the victory.
Who Should Win: Tim McGraw sputtered at the start of this year with the overly auto-tuned "Lookin' for That Girl," which never took off. So his duet with wife Faith Hill felt like a refreshing reprieve from trend-chasing. "Meanwhile Back at Mama's" connected with critics and listeners alike, and its popularity was rooted in real emotion, not just flash.
Voters will choose between Dierks Bentley's "I Hold On," Eric Church's "Give Me Back My Hometown," Kacey Musgraves' "Follow Your Arrow," Lee Brice's "I Don't Dance" and Miranda Lambert's "Automatic" as the best-written track of the past year.
Who Will Win: Last year's winners were the writers behind Lee Brice's sentimental ballad, "I Drive Your Truck," and while Brice is nominated this year, it's actually Bentley's "I Hold On" that embodies that song's spirit best. With a heavy focus on family and commitment, "I Hold On" feels lived-in and personal, and when an artist connects with his music, voters tend to connect to that artist. There's a chance that progressive country fans will rally behind Musgraves' gay-friendly, weed-friendly "Follow Your Arrow," but "I Hold On" has broader appeal and became a much, much bigger hit.
Who Should Win: There's not a bad song in this bunch, and all of them feel like authentic expressions from their singers. But the lyrics of "I Hold On" came truly alive thanks to Bentley's dynamic rasp and the song's understated production.
In this most prestigious honor of the night, last year's surprise victor, George Strait, will go for a repeat win against Blake Shelton, Keith Urban, Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert.
Who Will Win: Though George Strait already got the legacy vote at last year's ceremony, his Cowboy Rides Away farewell tour was a star-studded affair that sold out across the country, and he just may pull off a double win. If he doesn't, look for Luke Bryan to score the honor, which he's already earned at the ACM Awards, due to the sheer size of his country music empire.
Who Should Win: So dire is the drought of solo female artists in country music that Miranda Lambert's status as a genre powerhouse is nothing short of astounding, and she's risen to the top thanks to her frank attitude and genuine storytelling ability. She's had a dynamite year on the charts and is a figurehead country music should be glad to have.
The best pluckers, plinkers and sliders of Nashville will all try to strum up a win on Wednesday night. Dann Huff (guitar), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Mac McAnally (guitar), Paul Franklin (steel guitar) and Sam Bush (mandolin) are each up for the honor.
Who Will Win: Vince Gill's collaboration with Paul Franklin, Bakersfield, was a pot of gold for traditional country music fans, and it gave the steel guitar master a high-profile showcase for his craft. Expect him to head to the stage, taking the crown back from Mac McAnally, who scored at last year's show.
Who Should Win: Paul Franklin is an industry icon, and he is, in every way, a worthy recipient.
It's a boys' club of radio stars in the New Artist category, with one female critical favorite in the mix. Brett Eldredge, Kip Moore, Thomas Rhett and Cole Swindell, all of whom have scored at least two Number One country airplay hits, are going up against songwriter extraordinaire Brandy Clark.
Who Will Win: Thomas Rhett's back-to-back hits "It Goes Like This" and "Get Me Some of That," when coupled with his successful songwriting history (he's co-written singles for Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean and Lee Brice), make him a strong contender for the prize. Still, if Rhett splits votes with his fellow party-hearty male competition, the door could be open for Brandy Clark to pull off a huge upset.
Who Should Win: Brandy Clark may not match the commercial success of the bros in her category, but she's earned massive industry respect in Nashville. Clark co-wrote hits like the Band Perry's "Better Dig Two" and Miranda Lambert's "Mama's Broken Heart," and her debut album 12 Stories drew wide acclaim from all corners of the pop culture landscape.
This one's a race between category regulars Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood, dark horse Kacey Musgraves, darker horse (read: pop diva) Taylor Swift, and Miranda Lambert, who has won the last four years in a row.
Who Will Win: It's looking likely that Miranda Lambert will score a fifth straight victory as she continues her reign as country music's current queen. Her new album, Platinum, topped the all-genre chart earlier this year, and her status as half of country's most famous couple has kept her in the good graces of both fans and voters.
Who Should Win: It's hard to argue with Lambert's success. And it's hard to argue for Carrie Underwood or Kacey Musgraves when they didn't release an album in the past year to go up against Platinum. With Taylor Swift having officially removed herself from country music, Lambert's path to victory is clear.
Blake Shelton, who has taken home male vocalist honors for four years running, will compete against Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, Keith Urban and Luke Bryan this time around.
Who Will Win: Blake Shelton has had a vice grip on this category ever since his role on The Voice turned him into a national superstar. But Luke Bryan has dominated the country world in the past year with smashes like "Drink a Beer," "Play It Again" and "Roller Coaster," and his Crash My Party album has continued his winning streak, selling over 2 million copies. Many were surprised Bryan didn't dethrone Shelton last year, but he may get to take a trip to the podium this time around.
Who Should Win: He's never reached the stratospheric heights of Shelton or Bryan, but Dierks Bentley has been a resonating presence in country music for over a decade now, creating sturdy tunes that are alternately heartfelt and fun-loving. His latest album, Riser, has only added to his appeal, and its singles have put him back on top of the charts. He'd make for a fun surprise victor.
Four Davids will take on a proverbial Goliath as Dan + Shay, Love & Theft, the Swon Brothers and Thompson Square face off against reigning multiplatinum champs Florida Georgia Line.
Who Will Win: Florida Georgia Line have this one absolutely locked up. They've continued to crank out Number One smash singles like "This Is How We Roll" and "Dirt," the latter of which subverted the duo's standard party-song formula, and their latest album, Anything Goes, just topped the Billboard 200. Florida Georgia Line certainly have their detractors, but their commercial appeal will carry them to CMA success.
Who Should Win: No one is dethroning FGL this time around, but Love & Theft are the most enjoyable act nominated here. While the duo parted ways with their label earlier this year, they have a knack for crafting memorable melodies and infusing their delivery with ample charm.
Eli Young Band, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, the Band Perry and Zac Brown Band will go head-to-head for top group honors.
Who Will Win: Little Big Town have taken this category for the past two years and are arguably the critical favorite here, but if anyone can give the quartet in this category a run for their money, it's the trio. Lady Antebellum have made a big career comeback, and voters have likely taken notice. "Compass" and "Bartender" both reached Number One at country radio, and the group's appealing harmonies and genuine likability keep them thriving.
Who Should Win: Zac Brown Band continues to release music that is rich, resonant and a refreshing change of pace from everything else in mainstream country. Their EP, The Grohl Sessions, Vol. 1, produced by Foo Fighters leading man Dave Grohl, contains lush musicianship and soaring vocals.
Five worthy collaborations fill this category: Vince Gill and Paul Franklin's "Bakersfield," Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's "Meanwhile Back at Mama's," Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood's "Somethin' Bad," Keith Urban and Lambert's "We Were Us," and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton's "You Can't Make Old Friends."
Who Will Win: At a time when women are few and far between on country radio, the teaming of the genre's two biggest female stars, Lambert and Underwood, felt like the epitome of an event. Insiders will likely want to quell the criticism of country's lack of women by awarding the prize to "Somethin' Bad." If that doesn't happen, look for husband-wife duo McGraw and Hill to score nostalgia votes for "Meanwhile Back at Mama's."
Who Should Win: The most overlooked track of 2013 was perhaps Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton's charming, weepy ode to friendship, "You Can't Make Old Friends." The "Islands in the Stream" duet partners still know how to charm, and their tender croons made the unassuming song a true gem.
Update: We were wrong! Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert took the prize for "We Were Us," as the category was announced on Good Morning America today.
The clips battling for glory here include Dierks Bentley's "Drunk on a Plane," Kacey Musgraves' "Follow Your Arrow," Lady Antebellum's "Bartender," Miranda Lambert's "Automatic" and Lambert's other entry, "Somethin' Bad," her girl power duet with Carrie Underwood.
Who Will Win: The sizzling visuals in Lambert and Underwood's revved up "Somethin' Bad" video, which showcases the ladies in a bank heist (and on motorcycles) felt as sleek and explosive as a high octane Hollywood movie. None of the other nominees could compete with that level of gloss. The clip went immediately viral, and it's racked up 19 million views to date.
Who Should Win: If voters are judging purely on the basis of humor, Bentley's "Drunk on a Plane" should fly higher than the rest. But, the Trey Fanjoy-directed "Somethin' Bad" video elevated its song more than any of the other nominees.
*Update: Comedy prevails! Bentley's "Drunk on a Plane" was named the winner on Good Morning America Wednesday morning.