For the first time in a long time, absolutely no category is a sure thing at the CMA Awards. The 50th anniversary of country music's biggest night is unpredictable — but we tried anyway. Our experts weigh in on who we believe will go home with a coveted Country Music Association award on Wednesday night, November 2nd. . . and also plead the case for who should win.
The five artists up for the night’s biggest prize are Garth Brooks, Luke Bryan, Chris Stapleton, Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood.
Who Will Win: While its possible that Bryan will sweep in with a three-peat, Underwood is at the absolute top of her game with her Storytellers album (up for Album of the Year) and her sold-out fifth headlining tour. Plus, she has the undiluted might of Sony Music Nashville behind her when it comes to voting, whereas Bryan, Stapleton and Urban have to split Universal Music Group Nashville's affections.
Who Should Win: There’s no denying Underwood is deserving, but Brooks has sold more than five million tickets since returning to the road in 2014, at a higher clip than when he snagged the award four times in the Nineties. His shows have lost none of their remarkable energy and his connection with his audience remains unmatched by any artist. With a new album on the way, it feels like a new Garth era. — M.N.
In the running for Single of the Year (awarded to the artist for song performance) is a male-heavy selection of heavy hitters featuring Tim McGraw ("Humble and Kind"), Chris Stapleton ("Nobody to Blame"), Eric Church ("Record Year") and Thomas Rhett ("Die a Happy Man") along with the lone female, Maren Morris' "My Church."
Who Will Win: While no song here has quite reached the pop-culture phenomenon status of last year's winner, "Girl Crush," two stand out for both their endurance at radio and ability to touch all edges of the genre: Morris' "My Church" and Rhett's "Die a Happy Man." While "Die a Happy Man" found Rhett in a more plaintive, delicate and decidedly non-bro groove, "My Church" is approaching anthem territory for country fans who dig the spirit of Sam Hunt as much as the soul of Johnny Cash. Money's on Morris.
Who Should Win: "My Church" is revelatory, but the true gospel here for music lovers is Church's "Record Year," a tribute to the power of song to salve and save a broken heart – and keep it beating on. It's a strong and subtle vocal performance from the Chief, layered with complex production by Jay Joyce that unfolds with each listen. – M.M.
Up for Song (awarded to the songwriters) is Thomas Rhett's "Die a Happy Man," Tim McGraw's "Humble and Kind," Eric Church's "Record Year," Morris' "My Church" and Cam's "Burning House."
Who Will Win: Lori McKenna, who released the excellent The Bird & The Rifle this summer, probably should have been nominated for her own solo work – so awarding her for crafting McGraw's tender and touching "Humble and Kind" is a close second. It's a moment from a seriously respected songwriter that gave a modern country legend one of his best performances in years. "Die a Happy Man" could triumph, but "Humble and Kind" most likely snags the gold.
Who Should Win: "Humble and Kind," in the letters-to-loved-ones tradition of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young," is deserving – but so is Cam's "Burning House," a beautiful and detailed ballad that's both timely and timeless.— M.M.
Nominated for New Artist of the Year are Cole Swindell, Old Dominion, Brothers Osborne, Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini.
Who Will Win: A case could be made as to why any of the artists in this competitive category could or should take the trophy (except for Swindell – hasn't he been a "new" artist for a few years now?), but no one has been as strong out of the gate as Morris. She's got all the goods: songwriting chops, killer vocal ability and a the kind of talent that tugs on the heartstrings of both purists and poptomists. She's a shoo-in.
Who Should Win: Morris. She's gone from under-the-radar songwriter to rising superstar in less than a year. Though Brothers Osborne is deserving too – they're modernizing country to their own rock & roll beat.— M.M.
Don't let the title fool you; this isn’t a question of who’s the best singer, but rather which star shined brightest in the last year. The nominees are Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, Tim McGraw, Chris Stapleton and Keith Urban.
Who Will Win: This one is a toss up between Bentley, Church and Urban. Bentley has the stats, Church owns the artistic argument and Urban spent half the year on camera as American Idol finished its run – plus, each one sold out arenas and took musical risks that paid off. But ultimately Bentley's year was the most well-rounded, giving him the edge.
Who Should Win: Bentley may have had his best year yet in 2016, scoring a Number One album and two Platinum and Gold-certified Number One singles that sounded like nothing else in the format. Plus, he boosted visibility with high-profile gigs like co-hosting the ACM Awards. Nominated in this category for the last three years, the stars have finally aligned. — C.P.
Six-time winner Miranda Lambert goes up against first-time nominee Maren Morris and last year's first-timer Kelsea Ballerini, plus four-time contender Kacey Musgraves and 10-time nominee Carrie Underwood, whose three-year winning streak ended in 2008.
Who Will Win: Underwood's Entertainer of the Year nomination underscores her momentum this year but with victory there far from a forgone conclusion – and Lambert's lack of an album release to buoy her chances – she's likely to reclaim this title as a consolation prize.
Who Should Win: With no new LP to spark interest (although anticipation for November's The Weight of These Wings is certainly upping her odds), Lambert's seventh consecutive win hinges on reminders that her always dynamic live show and relentless touring schedule are reason enough to keep the streak going. Still, even she would probably say to give this to her friend, Carrie — an unparalleled vocalist who just came off a monumental, sold-out tour. — S.B.
The five albums up for the night's second-biggest prize are Black by Dierks Bentley, Hero by Maren Morris, Mr. Misunderstood by Eric Church, Ripcord by Keith Urban and Storyteller by Carrie Underwood.
Who Will Win: Previously nominated for Riser and the bluegrass LP Up on the Ridge, Bentley delivers his most ambitious yet accessible album to date with Black, and will likely edge out the equally experimental, genre-busting contenders from Urban and Church. If there's a spoiler among them, it's Morris, although it feels just a bit too soon.
Who Should Win: Lyrical introspection wins the day as Bentley and Church nearly finish neck-and-neck in the race. What sets them apart is staying power. After multiple listens, Mr. Misunderstood feels just as fresh, while the conventionality of Bentley's approach eventually begins to seep through a bit. Church wins by a nose. — S.B.
The vocal group of the year field is dominated by big names, but don’t count out the underdog just yet. The nominees are Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Old Dominion, Rascal Flatts and Zac Brown Band.
Who Will Win: Little Big Town have won this category every year since 2012, but unless CMA voters are still feeling the warm-and-fuzzy effects of Pain Killer, the streak comes to an end on November 2nd. By process of elimination, Old Dominion gets their first CMA award.
Who Should Win: This year’s field of nominees is a curious one. Lady Antebellum was on hiatus, Little Big Town failed to bring Pharrell into the country fold and Zac Brown Band’s "Castaway" got marooned outside the Top 10. Rascal Flatts did have another chart-topper with “I Like the Sound of That,” but newcomers Old Dominion were more impressive, extending their Top 10 streak to three in a row with "Snapback" and "Song for Another Time." — C.P.
Florida Georgia Line will defend their crown against Brothers Osborne, Dan + Shay, Joey + Rory and Maddie & Tae.
Who Will Win: Dan + Shay are starting to build some momentum and Joey + Rory will forever have a spot in the hearts of country fans, but it's tough to argue against Florida Georgia Line. They might be lightning rods for the press, but this year they sold tickets like a stadium act and sent "H.O.L.Y" to kneel at Number One for a staggering 18 weeks.
Who Should Win: Based on success, FGL definitely deserve this win — making for their fourth CMA Vocal Duo trophy in a row. But we'd like to see this category stop being so lopsided (see consecutive sweeps by Sugarland and Brooks & Dunn, as well). Brothers Osborne have Grammy recognition, fan and critical praise and have brought an edge to the genre while still tipping their hats to its roots. —C.P.
Five collaborations vie for the honor this year: "Different for Girls," by Dierks Bentley and Elle King, "Home Alone Tonight," Luke Bryan featuring Karen Fairchild, "The Fighter," Keith Urban featuring Carrie Underwood, "Think of You," Chris Young's duet with Cassadee Pope and "You Are My Sunshine," by Morgane Stapleton with Chris Stapleton.
Who Will Win: "Home Alone Tonight" and "Think of You" hit the top of the country chart, but the more recent ascent of "Different for Girls" to Number One suggests it has the best shot at the award. That it has vaulted blues-rocker Elle King to country-star status can't hurt either.
Who Should Win: With the hot-button topic of understanding and respecting women dominating headlines, it's tough to imagine any pairing other than Bentley and King walking away with this one. Although "Different for Girls" simply acknowledges the ways the respective sexes approach heartaches and hook-ups, with King's tender delivery providing the perfect counterpoint to Bentley's smoky vocals, there's enough gravitas to elevate it to a higher level.— S.B.