By MESFIN FEKADU and Kristin M. Hall
You think you know who’s going to win at an awards show, rationalizing to yourself: “But he sold the most records” or “Well, she had the most hits,” or “HIS album really moved the needle.”
But there’s one thing you can always count on – there’s a fair chance you’re wrong.
That also applies to The Associated Press, but that’s not stopping us from making bets on who will take home the big prizes at Country Music Association Awards. The trophies will be presented Wednesday at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., where it will celebrate its 50th anniversary.
The top prize of the night is for entertainer of the year, with heavy hitters trying to knock Luke Bryan off his throne: He won it in 2014 and is the reigning champion.
Will they succeed? We debate that possibility, and other categories, below.
ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR: Garth Brooks; Luke Bryan; Chris Stapleton; Carrie Underwood; Keith Urban.
FEKADU: This could go so many ways, but let’s start with who won’t take this home: Urban and Stapleton. It would be nice to see Carrie get this for the first time – seriously, how hasn’t she won this prize yet? – but unfortunately, she won’t. And while Bryan was the student who’s now the master, there’s no one quite like Garth, who has dominated in ticket sales in the last year and proved he’s going to keep kicking around for a long time.
HALL: Garth recently earned his seventh diamond album certification and finally embraced streaming music this year, but I think the hip-shaking Bryan will keep the crown for at least another year.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: “Black,” Dierks Bentley; “Hero,” Maren Morris; “Mr. Misunderstood,” Eric Church; “Ripcord,” Keith Urban; “Storyteller,” Carrie Underwood.
HALL: It’s Carrie’s world and we’re all just living in it. While Morris had an acclaimed debut, she’s is too new for voters to give her this one. Church’s album doesn’t quite match up to his other records. Urban’s experimental style on “Ripcord” may be too pop leaning for a majority of voters and Bentley’s “Black” hasn’t reached its full potential yet. But Underwood delivered her best album of her career, filled with songs like “Church Bells” and “Smoke Break” that play to her strengths as a vocalist and an entertainer.
FEKADU: You’re right about Morris – though selfishly I would love to see her rich, diverse album win the award here. I’m going to go with Church though, who released his album as a surprise during the CMAs last year. This would be a great way to celebrate its one-year anniversary.
SINGLE OF THE YEAR: “Die A Happy Man,” Thomas Rhett; “Humble and Kind,” Tim McGraw; “My Church,” Maren Morris; “Nobody to Blame,” Chris Stapleton; “Record Year,” Eric Church.
FEKADU: This race is between “Die A Happy Man” and “Humble and Kind,” songs that won at other awards shows and have become big hits, even cracking the pop top 40. And though McGraw’s touching video includes footage from the Oprah Winfrey Network’s inspiring “Belief” series, Rhett’s multi-platinum song – even rapper Nelly covered it – will win here.
HALL: Country fans fell in love with “Humble and Kind” for its heartfelt message and in a contentious election year, the lyrics have a lot of good advice about how to treat each other with respect. That’s my vote.
MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR: Dierks Bentley; Eric Church; Tim McGraw; Chris Stapleton; Keith Urban.
HALL: Is there any doubt that Stapleton will continue to win this award every time he is nominated? Even though his breakthrough album “Traveller” was released a year and a half ago, his star has hardly diminished. He is the most dynamic voice on country radio, hands down.
FEKADU: What she said.
FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR: Kelsea Ballerini; Miranda Lambert; Maren Morris; Kacey Musgraves; Carrie Underwood.
FEKADU: Lambert’s six-year-streak will end, thanks to her “Somethin’ Bad” duet partner Carrie Underwood.
HALL: Man, I really think Carrie deserves it this year, but for the sake of arguing, the CMA voters love Miranda. She’s also about to drop a highly anticipated double album and her new single “Vice” is a killer song.