The competition is friendly but fierce at Wednesday's Country Music Association Awards, which air live on ABC at 8 p.m. ET. Here are our picks for who will take home the night's top prizes — and the performers who also deserve the recognition.
Entertainer of the Year
Will win: Luke Bryan/Garth Brooks
Should win: Carrie Underwood
The concert industry makes up a huge portion of the CMA voter base, and no one’s ruled that world like Brooks and Bryan in the last year. Since returning to the road in 2014, Brooks is closing in on 5 million tickets sold. On the other hand, Bryan has the momentum of winning the award for the last two years – and an endless string of modern hits.
But an Underwood win is long overdue. Not just for the singer – who’s been one of the genre’s most recognizable stars for a decade now – but for female performers in general. Much has been made of modern country music being unfairly dominated by its male stars, and considering that Underwood has somehow never been nominated for Entertainer of the Year before, it’s hard to argue.
Male Vocalist of the Year
Will win: Chris Stapleton
Should win: Dierks Bentley
If you’ve heard him wail Sometimes I Cry in concert, it’s hard to imagine the incredible Stapleton losing any award with “vocalist” in the title. But as a performer and ambassador for the genre, Bentley has been a steadfast star, and one that continues to take risks that pay off like the uncharacteristic hit Somewhere on a Beach.
Female Vocalist of the Year
Will and should win: Carrie Underwood
Despite some formidable competition, Underwood seems like a shoe-in for this award, especially since longtime winner Miranda Lambert had a relatively quiet year.
New Artist of the Year
Will win: Kelsea Ballerini
Should win: Maren Morris
This category’s truly a toss-up. Few newcomers in recent memory seem as poised to be a longtime star as Ballerini, who’s had three consecutive No. 1 hits, including the stellar Peter Pan. But in terms of bringing something “new” to the table, Morris has no peer in the category. Her Hero album mixed a reverence for classic country and a penchant for modern pop hooks, and made her one of the night’s top nominees. If there’s a category for her to win, this is it.
Song of the Year
Will and should win: Humble and Kind, Lori McKenna
The Tim McGraw hit is universally adored by the industry, and the melody and message (to “always stay humble and kind”) penned by McKenna clicked with millions of listeners and turned into an anthem for its singer.
Single of the Year
Will and should win:Die a Happy Man, Thomas Rhett
A winning blend of sentimental songwriting, slick production and a smooth vocal from Thomas Rhett. Die a Happy Man topped the country charts, earned critical raves and picked up a similar award from the Academy of Country Music earlier this year.
Album of the Year
Will win:Storyteller, Carrie Underwood
Should win:Mr. Misunderstood, Eric Church
Storyteller has the commercial success and admirable sonic cohesion, but with Mr. Misunderstood, Church turned his album into event. Its surprise release — revealed during last year’s CMAs — is a move that pop stars have pulled for years now, but few country acts are daring to attempt.
Vocal Group of the Year
Will and should win: Little Big Town
The beloved country quartet have owned this award since 2012, and despite Old Dominion breathing new life into a category that’s always in need of it, we’re betting the streak will continue.
Vocal Duo of the Year
Will and should win: Florida Georgia Line
They have their share of detractors, but Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley have been very, very good for the country music business. The duo has packed arenas, performed for millions and just went double platinum with their single H.O.L.Y.