We already know Luke Bryan will host the 55th CMA Awards, which are set for Nov. 10 in Nashville. But who will take home the trophies? In another year when the pandemic impacted all areas of the music business, it’s difficult to guess which way votes will fall because the criteria that typically defines success looks different than ever before. Country music watched its kings fall and different heroes emerge this year to draw new lines in the sand – or erase them completely.
That said, no one loves a party – or a competition – like country music and its people. So here goes – our predictions for the 55th CMA Awards, which will air live from Music City 7 p.m. Nov. 10 on ABC.
Who do you think will win?
Entertainer of the Year: Eric Church or Luke Combs
In a voting period when current events largely impacted live entertainment, country music needed leaders, and Eric Church stepped up. Church was photographed receiving the COVID-19 vaccine on the cover of Billboard magazine days before he announced his arena tour. In a genre that’s largely conservative, many country artists shy away from sharing their vaccine status or opinions out of fear of alienating their fan base. But, not Church. His tour – an in-the-round arena experience – launched as planned in September. When his band was forced to quarantine after exposure, Church headlined the venue truly solo then hauled Cam and Morgan Wallen to the stage as a surprise.
The only way country music could love Luke Combs more is if he was actually Santa Claus. Combs brought a comfortable familiarity back to the genre in that his themes fit with country music and so does his production. Combs’ voice paired with 90s-inspired blue-collar anthems of love and alcohol elevated him from country music’s popular new singer to the working man’s Solo cup hero.
Female Vocalist of the Year: Maren Morris or Carly Pearce
Maren Morris has a hit song with her husband Ryan Hurd – “Chasing After You” – in the Top 5 on country radio during final voting.
But Carly Pearce has been everywhere for longer this cycle. Recently, she’s been more visible in Nashville than the Bat Building. Pearce was inducted into The Grand Ole Opry, released her CMA-nominated new album “29” and spent several months on tour with Lady Antebellum.
Male Vocalist of the Year: Luke Combs
Is it a contest this year? I’m not picking an or. Well, you can never count out Chris Stapleton. I mean, he’s Chris Stapleton.
Vocal Group of the Year: Old Dominion or Lady A
Old Dominion has won this category since 2018 and, given their new well-received album “Time, Tequila & Therapy” is home to their Top 10 hit “I Was on a Boat That Day,” I’m not sure there’s a reason people wouldn’t vote for them again. That is unless Lady A squeezes in and takes the trophy back – and they could. Vocal Group of the Year belonged to Lady A from 2009-2011, and the trio just released its eighth studio album, “What A Song Can Do.” The 14-song collection spans fervent to festive and spotlights the trio at its best – rich, familiar harmonies paired with melodic, relatable songs to which fans can relate. In addition, Lady A played the Nashville area twice in recent months and showing up always helps with votes.
Duo: Dan + Shay or Brothers Osborne
Dan + Shay are on an undeniable roll. In August, the duo released its “Good Things” album, which became the first country album in the streaming era to be RIAA Gold-certified at release. The album is home to the four-times platinum “10,000 Hours” with Justin Bieber, the platinum “I Should Probably Go to Bed,” and gold-certified “Glad You Exist.” The duo played the first major concert held in Nashville’s Centennial Park, performing to a capacity crowd of 10,000 people and is currently on its arena headlining tour.
However, T.J. Osborne of Brothers Osborne came out in 2021. While that has nothing to do with musical performance, it has everything to do with being an industry leader. Country music has other out LGBT members in its performing ranks, but they’ve been relegated to its fringes. Brothers Osborne are beloved creative juggernauts and undeniably fierce, commanding performers who won’t stand on the sidelines. When T.J. Osborne came out in early 2021, he was country music’s first artist to do so at the peak of his career. His courageous step forward brought out the best of country music and showed the world that country music could be a place for everyone. He deserves so much more than an industry-voted, engraved statue for his bravery, but it’s a good start.
New Artist of the Year: Mickey Guyton or Gabby Barrett
Gabby Barrett is the queen of country radio these days – and for a great many days before this. Barrett is the reigning ACM New Female Artist of the Year. She picked up three trophies at the Billboard Music Awards – including Top Female Country Artist. She won the 2021 CMT Music Awards for Female Video of the Year. “I Hope” was the first debut single by a solo female artist to top the country radio charts since 2017 – a No. 1 position she stayed in for 27 weeks. Her debut album “GOLDMINE” has accumulated more than 1.5 billion global streams and includes the four-week Hot AC No. 1 crossover version of “I Hope” featuring Charlie Puth and her platinum three-week No. 1 “The Good Ones.”
After years spent striving for recognition in Nashville, Mickey Guyton finally broke through like those who have followed her for years knew she would. Her record label UMG Nashville was unwaveringly loyal, and their patience paid off as Guyton stepped into the spotlight to be an unyielding voice of diversity in the genre. This year, she co-hosted the Academy of Country Music Awards, received a Grammy nomination for her “Black Like Me,” and released her album “Remember Her Name,” on which she co-wrote 15 of the 16 songs.
Single of the Year: Chris Young and Kane Brown – “Famous Friends” or Gabby Barrett “The Good Ones”
“Famous Friends” is a multi-week No. 1 song that pairs two arena headliners for an up-tempo stroll through small-town friendships. In addition to its chart-topping feat, “Famous Friends” spent a remarkable 15 weeks in the Top 5 on Billboard’s country charts. The song is Chris Young’s 12th No. 1 as an artist and his 10th as a songwriter. The duet is Brown’s sixth No. 1 song. Young co-produced “Famous Friends” with Corey Crowder.
Equally inescapable, Gabby Barrett’s “The Good Ones” clung to country radio like Velcro. And, as previously stated, it is a platinum three-week No. 1 hit.
Song of the Year: “Hell of a View” written by Casey Beathard, Eric Church and Monty Criswell or “One Night Standards” written by Nicolette Hayford, Shane McAnally and Ashley McBryde or “Starting Over” written by Mike Henderson and Chris Stapleton
These songs are fresh air on country radio where a great many offerings are indecipherable. They are carefully crafted, lyrical triumphs that drip authenticity. The years of experience, friendship and respect accumulated by the writers of each of these songs is admirable beyond measure, and they wrote a helluva song.
Album of the Year: Brothers Osborne’s “Skeletons” or Chris Stapleton’s “Starting Over”
When Brothers Osborne released its third album, “Skeletons,” in 2020, the public didn’t know the secrets it would unveil in the coming months. The authentic, guitar-driven collection lives on the edge of Southern rock and doesn’t blink when it commands consideration.
After 2020, doesn’t everyone want to start over? Stapleton is one of Nashville’s most celebrated finely tuned melodic and lyrical masters for a reason – he earned it.
Musical Event: Maren Morris and Ryan Hurd – “Chasing After You” or Chris Young and Kayne Brown – “Famous Friends”
Country music loves nothing as much as a good husband/wife collaboration, and “Chasing After You” pairs the genre’s favored female and her handsome other half for a contemporary sing-along ballad that remains a Top 5 hit at country radio in the midst of CMA Awards voting.
As for “Famous Friends,” both men needed a big ole hit on country radio, and they teamed up to make it happen. “Famous Friends” was written and recorded years ago for Young’s long-awaited eighth studio album. While “Famous Friends” took a while to make its official debut, it showed up on country radio right on time and became a multi-week No. 1 hit.
Video of the Year: Brothers Osborne – “Younger Me”
There hasn’t been a braver, desperately needed, or more impactful music video in country music history than “Younger Me,” which blew the doors of the genre open for its LGBT fans and singers.
There’s no or. If voters don’t recognize the duo’s leap of faith in “Younger Me,” then Dolly Parton isn’t queen, and Santa Combs will only bring them coal for Christmas.