The Country Music Association released its nominees Wednesday for the 50th Annual CMAs, to be broadcast on ABC on Nov. 2 at 8 p.m./7 p.m. Central. Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood will host for the ninth year in a row.
Chris Stapleton, Eric Church and Maren Morris lead the nominees with five nominations each, while perennial awards show naysayer Sturgill Simpson and delightful newcomer Margo Price failed to pick up any nominations, despite having been considered for awards earlier in the CMAs cycle.
But the country music industry likes to give out awards like my youth soccer league gave out participation trophies, so there may be hope for the two of them yet. I doubt either would care about being recognized by the mainstream industry, however.
Anyway, I’ve had a bit to think about the nominee list since it was announced Wednesday morning, and I’m ready to regale you, dear reader, with my picks for who will be taking home that trophy in two months’ time. I’m assuming that all of these bold predictions will be 100 percent correct. But hey, I’ve been wrong before.
Entertainer of the Year
Garth Brooks — WINNER
Who Will Win: Luke Bryan
Who Should Win: Garth Brooks
Despite my misgivings about the content of his music, Luke Bryan puts on a damn good show, and he has been doing so for years; he’s looking to three-peat in this category this year, and probably will. However, Garth Brooks’ return to the touring circuit shouldn’t be taken lightly. Brooks’ live arena shows in the 90s set the template that pretty much every country superstar follows today, and he still knows how to perform with the best of ’em.
Pretty much everyone else on this list has the ability to usurp Bryan’s throne, except for Keith Urban, who doesn’t stand a chance against these titans of the arena.
Single of the Year
“Die a Happy Man,” Thomas Rhett — WINNER
“Humble and Kind,” Tim McGraw
“My Church,” Maren Morris
“Nobody to Blame,” Chris Stapleton
“Record Year,” Eric Church
What Will Win: “My Church,” Maren Morris
What Should Win: “My Church,” Maren Morris
“Single of the Year” typically goes to the commercial juggernauts of the genre, and nobody proved herself more commercially viable this year than the 26-year-old from Dallas. “My Church” peaked at No. 5 on Billboard’s “Hot Country Songs” chart, an impressive feat for any first single. The song marries current pop conventions with traditional country sentiments in a way that feels wholly natural to who Morris is as an artist, instead of superficially tacked on as it so often feels with other singers.
The only one I’m seeing an upset from is Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man,” one of the few good songs from his latest album.
Album of the Year
“Black,” Dierks Bentley
“Hero,” Maren Morris
“Mr. Misunderstood,” Eric Church — WINNER
“Ripcord,” Keith Urban
“Storyteller,” Carrie Underwood
What Will Win: “Hero,” Maren Morris
What Should Win: “Mr. Misunderstood,” Eric Church
While “Black” went down the concept album route, aimed specifically at adults, and Carrie Underwood’s “Storyteller” also showcased a more mature side (see “Smoke Break”), this category is Maren Morris’ to lose. As I’ve said earlier in this post and in a prior review, “Hero” is a fantastic album and is also unabashedly pop-country, but in a way that feels organic. Plus, Morris is being heavily courted by radio as the next big female country star, moroeso than other females on this list. Another award here fits into that narrative.
However, giving the award to Morris overlooks “Mr. Misunderstood,” Eric Church’s best album to date. If the surprise release of “Mr. Misunderstood” hadn’t been overshadowed by Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake performing together at last year’s CMAs, Church might have been on the ballot for Entertainer of the Year, too. “Mr. Misunderstood” features some of the best songwriting of Church’s career, and out of all the nominees on this list, it’s the one that’s going to keep being spun a “Record Year” from now.
Song of the Year
“Burning House,” written by Camaron “Cam” Ochs, Tyler Johnson and Jeff Bhasker
“Die a Happy Man,” written by Sean Douglas, Thomas Rhett and Joe Spargur
“Humble and Kind,” written by Lori McKenna — WINNER
“Record Year,” written by Eric Church and Jeff Hyde
“My Church,” written by busbee and Maren Morris
What Will Win: “Die a Happy Man”
What Should Win: “Humble and Kind”
While “Single of the Year” goes to the commercial starlets, “Song of the Year” focuses on the songwriters. This year’s crop is a no-brainer to pick from: Lori McKenna should win for “Humble and Kind,” performed by Tim McGraw. Her version (from her latest album “The Bird and the Rifle”) is superior to McGraw’s, and aside from “Record Year,” is the best-written song from the nominees. She shared this same award last year for “Girl Crush,” too.
But my gut tells me the CMAs will go with Rhett, especially if they give McGraw any awards (he’s nominated for three).
Female Vocalist of the Year
Carrie Underwood — WINNER
Who Will Win: Carrie Underwood
Who Should Win: Carrie Underwood
First off, I don’t know if the CMAs can give this award to Miranda Lambert seven(!) years in a row without being accused of some kind of “The League”-level collusion. If she does win, there’s some rigging going on. She also just won the inagural ACM Merle Haggard Spirit Award.
My pick for this category is CMA co-host Carrie Underwood, whose own three-year streak of winning “Female Vocalist of the Year” ended in 2009, when Taylor Swift won. Compared to Morris (too young, although she’s the dark horse candidate in my book), Kacey Musgraves (not mainstream enough for the CMAs) and Kelsea Ballerini (Her singles have all charted well, but she doesn’t stand a chance compared to everyone else on this list), Underwood is the righful vocal powerhouse and the safest choice for the CMAs to make besides Miranda Lambert.
Male Vocalist of the Year
Chris Stapleton — WINNER
Who Will Win: Chris Stapleton
Who Should Win: Chris Stapleton
Chis Stapleton deserves every single bit of praise he’s gotten, and after seeing him live, that praise is not without merit. This is a tough race to call, though. I can see this one very easily going to Eric Church or Tim McGraw— an olive branch of recognition to the former, and the honoring of an industry veteran in the midst of a career comeback to the latter.
Vocal Group of the Year
Little Big Town — WINNER
Zac Brown Band
Who Will Win: Little Big Town
Who Should Win: Zac Brown Band
Little Big Town have won this award every year since 2012, so I don’t see the CMAs stopping now. The group just released “Wanderlust,” the latest contribution to the growing pop-country collaboration trend, so they might get recognized for helping perfect that slice of the genre. But honestly, if we’re talking knockout performances along with genre-bending, Zac Brown Band did it better.
Vocal Duo of the Year
Brothers Osborne — WINNER
Dan + Shay
Florida Georgia Line
Joey + Rory
Maddie & Tae
Who Will Win: Florida Georgia Line
Who Should Win: Joey + Rory
Florida Georgia Line will win for the fourth year in a row, because there is no justice in the world. Their latest venture into becoming more mature is just as bad as their regular music, but at least it means they’re thinking about things other than beer and pickup trucks and painted-on jeans.
The classy move, though, would be to award Joey + Rory (who are the original group with the “+” in their name, not the watered-down pop Dan + Shay) for their gospel album “Hymns,” which is still going strong on the Billboard charts. The award would also serve as a way to honor Joey Martin Feek, who died in March at 40 years old after a battle with cervical cancer.
Musical Event of the Year
“Different For Girls,” Dierks Bentley feat. Elle King — WINNER
“Home Alone Tonight,” Luke Bryan feat. Karen Fairchild
“The Fighter,” Keith Urban (featuring Carrie Underwood)
“Think of You,” Chris Young (duet with Cassadee Pope)
“You Are My Sunshine,” Morgane Stapleton with Chris Stapleton
Who Will Win: “Think of You,” Chris Young (duet with Cassadee Pope)
Who Should Win: “You Are My Sunshine,” Morgane Stapleton with Chris Stapleton
This is a tough category to call, but all I know is that the Stapletons probably won’t win for “You Are My Sunshine,” although they should. They’re carrying on the tradition of husband-and-wife duets that country music is known for. I’d also like to point out the semantics of how their nomination is phrased: “Morgane Stapleton WITH Chris Stapleton.” This was a team effort all the way through, with the proper emphasis placed on Morgane’s vocals. Sadly, it probably won’t win.
Other than “Sunshine,” “Think of You” is the best-sounding song out of this bunch, in my opinion. And it certainly was a hit with fans— it went to No. 2 on the “Hot Country” chart and was a fan favorite when the two performed it live.
Musician of the Year
Jerry Douglas, dobro/steel guitar
Paul Franklin, steel guitar
Dann Huff, guitar — WINNER
Brent Mason, guitar
Derek Wells, guitar
Who Will Win: Dann Huff
Who Should Win: Anyone but Dann Huff
Aside from the travesty that Mac McAnally wasn’t even nominated despite winning this award every year since 2008, there aren’t any big surprises in this one. Huff will win specifically based off of his production credits in addition to his musician credits.
Music Video of the Year
“Burning House”— Cam, directed by Trey Fanjoy
“Fire Away”— Chris Stapleton, directed by Tim Mattia — WINNER
“Humble and Kind”—Tim McGraw, directed by Wes Edwards
“Record Year”— Eric Church, directed by John Peets and Reid Long
“Somewhere on a Beach”— Dierks Bentley, directed by Wes Edwards
What Will Win: “Fire Away”
What Should Win: “Fire Away”
This is a tough one. Four out of the five deserve to win; “Somewhere on a Beach” works in context of the whole album it appears on, but as a stand-alone video, it’s forgettable. That leaves us with four equally winnable videos: “Burning House” is moody and cinematic; “Record Year” is a great song with a video that continues the schoolhouse themes of other “Mr. Misunderstood” singles; “Humble and Kind” uses the multi-ethnicity of its subjects to illustrate the global truth of its title.
But the one video that ekes out a win above those three contenders is “Fire Away,” which boasts feature-film-level performances from Ben Foster and Margarita Levieva as a couple in a once happy relationship that’s slowly being ruined by Levieva’s mood swings, depression and ultimate self-harm. The YouTube listing urges fans to visit www.changedirection.org to learn more about the mental health issues illustrated in the video. It’s a heartbreaking video with a purpose, and rightly deserves to win.
New Artist of the Year
Maren Morris — WINNER
Who Will Win: Maren Morris
Who Should Win: Maren Morris
Other than the slight possibility Cole Swindell might win, this will go to Morris, no question. There’s not even really any competition, especially on the radio. Nov. 2 will be a good night for Maren Morris, I guarantee it.
There you have it. Let’s see if I’m correct in two months. I’l be live-blogging the whole deal with a write-up afterwards.
Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. For info about album releases and concerts, check out this week’s Country Music Roundup.
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