Gone Country: Who will win, who should win at the 2017 CMAs

4:40 p.m Friday, Nov. 3, 2017 Music

The 51st Annual Country Music Association awards will be aired Wednesday, Nov. 8 at 8 p.m./7 p.m. CST on ABC. Co-hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood will be celebrating their 10th year in a row hosting the ceremony, which will include performances from Garth BrooksChris StapletonFaith HillTim McGrawMaren MorrisPinkNiall HoranReba McEntire and Alan Jackson, among others. 

The CMA recently got into some hot water when its press representatives released a missive Thursday stating that journalists would not be able to ask questions about the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting (barely two months old and classified as the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history), or their press credentials might get taken away at the ceremony. 

The CMA quickly backtracked off of that order Friday afternoon

Last year, the ceremony had to compete with Game 7 of the World Series, when the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians 8-7 in 10 inningsThey booked Beyoncé at the last minute, and that still didn’t help ratings. The 2016 ceremony was the CMA’s lowest rated since 2010.

This year, it doesn’t look like the CMA pulled any ratings stunts (unless the whole censorship thing was a ploy to get people to watch, and I can’t imagine why anyone would ever think that was a great idea). Rather, this year’s show looks like it’s focusing solely on the nominees. 

With that out of the way, let’s look at who will win, who might win, and who should win. 

Entertainer of the Year

Luke Bryan

Chris Stapleton

Garth Brooks pulled an upset last year and took home this top trophy just on the strength of his tour cycle alone, nabbing him his first Entertainer of the Year win since 1998. (He’s been nominated in this category a whopping 12 times, winning five.) Since last November, he’s released an album and kept up his touring schedule, including a surprise stop in Austin for South By Southwest. But I don’t think this award goes to him this year.

No, the 51st CMA for Entertainer of the Year will probably go to Keith Urban. His “Ripcord” album has been certified Platinum by the RIAA, he’s up for Male Vocalist of the Year, Vocal Event of the Year and Music Video of the Year, and he still puts on a good show.

But if we’re talking who I want to win this category, it’s Eric Church, who pulled an upset last year with an Album of the Year win for “Mr. Misunderstood.” His “61 Days of Church” touring playlists have reached new fans through Apple Music, and his live album “Mr. Misunderstood on the Rocks Live and (Mostly) Unplugged” highlights his live act these last few years, including “Kill a Word.” 

As for Luke Bryan, he’s got a decent shot of winning, and he’ll have momentum going into the ceremony with recent hit “Light It Up” and a new album coming soon that promises to explain “What Makes You Country.” 

Chris Stapleton won Male Vocalist of the year last year, but look for him again in this category next year, when “From A Room, Vol. 2” is released and voters can look at that and “Vol. 1” as a package deal. 

Album of the Year

Nominees:“The Breaker” – Little Big Town

“Heart Break” – Lady Antebellum

“The Nashville Sound” – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

This is an incredibly strong field this year, with the exception of Lady Antebellum. While the votes for Stapleton and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit might split themselves, bank on the Country Music Association handing this award to Miranda Lambert, who’s nominated for four other awards this year (though strangely, not for Entertainer of the Year. They couldn’t find one woman to nominate?)

“Weight” (one of Gone Country’s best albums of 2016) is the most ambitious album of these nominees. A dual album (three LPs if you’re listening on vinyl), it is much more than a breakup album. It touches on every emotion felt in the aftermath of losing someone, yes, but there is refreshing hope to be found there. And besides, if the CMA was afraid of politics getting infused into the ceremony before, they’re probably not going to reward an outspoken artist like Isbell, who won’t even be attending the cermeony due to tour obligations.

This is Lambert’s category, all the way. 

Single of the Year

“Dirt on My Boots” – Jon Pardi

“Better Man” has the Taylor Swift pedigree going for it. “Blue Ain’t Your Color” has the radio play. Lambert’s “Tin Man,” which has faltered on the radio (through no fault of her own), would be vindicated from its chart-slogging journey if the CMA wants to do right by her. 

But no, if the CMA honors the spirit of this award, it will easily be won by hick-hop ambassador Sam Hunt, whose derivative “Body Like a Back Road” became the first “country” single to spend more than 25 weeks at No. 1 on Bllboard’s “Hot country Songs” chart on Aug. 1. It went on to stay on top of the chart for 34 weeks. Hunt, who has been nominated three previous times but has never won, will run away with this category easily.

Song of the Year

“Better Man” – Little Big Town (Taylor Swift)

“Body Like a Back Road” – Sam Hunt ( Zach Crowell, Sam Hunt, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne)

“Dirt on My Boots” – Jon Pardi (Rhett Akins, Jesse Frasure, Ashley Gorley)

Again, “Better Man” has the Taylor Swift pedigree going for it, and “Blue Ain’t Your Color” hinges on some great wordplay. “Dirt On My Boots” probably made this list because of Rhett Akins, but it’s terrible. And you’ve already read my opinion on “Back Road.”

So in a category that rewards songwriting, the only deserving winner here is “Tin Man.” Besides “Back Road,” it’s the only song to have been co-written by its performer, and it’s the only song on this list that really sounds like anything that will stand the test of time. 

Male Vocalist of the Year

Dierks Bentley

Eric Church

Keith Urban

First off, Luke Bryan is not on this list despite being nominated for Entertainer of the Year. The same thing happened last year. That doesn’t bode well for his Entertainer of the Year chances. 

That being said, this is another strong category this year. But after “Craving You,” and “Unforgettable,” Thomas Rhett edges the competition just a little bit. I could see upsets from Stapleton or Urban, though.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelsea Ballerini

Reba McEntire

Maren Morris

Carrie Underwood

This category seems like it’s the same few people every year. That alone should be all you need to know about country music’s treatment of women. But at least this year there’s the chance for an upset of Lambert by Maren Morris, who was last year’s New Artist of the Year. And it’s cool to see Reba get some love this year, too. The only outlier here is Kelsea Ballerini, who doesn’t stand a chance with these ladies. 

Lambert, who lost this category to Carrie Underwood in 2016, has been nominated for this award 11 times and was an undefeated winner seven years in a row. After “The Weight of These Wings” and her touring cylce this year, this is mostly Lambert’s. If there is a dark horse, however, it’s going to be Morris.

New Artist of the Year

Old Dominion

Lauren Alaina

Wide open field this year. Could be anyone’s to take. Jon Pardi or Luke Combs would be nice. I love that Lauren Alaina got nominated. The only two I don’t realy want to see win are Old Dominon and Brett Young, although Young would probably be a safe bet here. This one’s a toss-up, but I’ll go with Combs based off of the strength of “When It Rains It Pours” and “Hurricane.”

Vocal Duo of the Year

Florida Georgia Line 

LoCash

Maddie & Tae

Like the Female Vocalist of the Year category, the only nominees here that weren’t here last year are LoCash. They don’t deserve to win, but then again, neither do Maddie & Tae, who haven’t done much in the last year. Same goes for Florida Georgia Line, who lost last year to Brothers Osborne after a three-year winning streak. 

The only logical choice here is Brothers Osborne, which would make them a repeat winner. But Dan + Shay or LoCash could pull an upset (although I have no clue why).

Vocal Group of the Year

Lady Antebellum

Old Dominion

Rascal Flatts

Little Big Town have won this award every year since 2012. Why stop now? If they don’t win anything for “Better Man,” this will be their award. If they do, however, this is probably going to go to Zac Brown Band for “returning to their roots” with “Welcome Home” (although, they never really left, unless you count Brown’s Pitbull knockoff side project).

Music Video of the Year

“Better Man” – Little Big Town

“Blue Ain’t Your Color” – Keith Urban

Who says the art of the music video is dead? Every video here perfectly captures the spirit of the song, with some extremely high production values (especially on Rhett’s mini-movie/trailer). 

The YouTube views winner here is “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” with more than 107.3 million views as of this writing. The only other video that comes close to that is “Vice,” at 29 million views. 

While “Blue” and “Better Man” are pretty straightforward, “Vice” taps into why we continue to make the same bad mistakes over and over, complete with a “who’s driving the car” metaphor; “Craving You” is an ambitious, senseless mini “Fast and the Furious”-esque trailer that stars Thomas Rhett as an undercover cop in love with Maren Morris’ bank robber; and “It Ain’t My Fault” centers around a pawn shop robbery led by robbers in Trump, Obama, Clintons, Bush and Reagan masks. All end up getting away with the crime but one (I’ll let you guess which).

All that is to say, Rhett’s “Craving You” collaboration with Morris is ambitious without actually saying anything, which means it will win this year. And as much as I’d love to see Brothers Osborne win here with their witty brand of satire, my personal pick is “Vice.” Simple, powerful, and effective. 

Also, a side note: YouTube comments are known to be the dreck of the bowels of the 9th level of internet comment hell, but the top comments on the “Vice” video are some of the nicest, most affirming things I’ve ever read.

Musical Event of the Year

Nominees:

“Craving You” – Thomas Rhett feat. Maren Morris

“Setting the World on Fire” – Kenny Chesney with Pink

“Speak to a Girl” – Tim McGraw and Faith Hill

The opportunity for a legacy/sympathy vote is strong with Glen Campbell and Wille Nelson. That way, they both get a CMA, and another industry legend will be honored. 

However, “Kill A Word” probably should win, but I wouldn’t be mad if it lost to Campbell and the Red-Headed Stranger. Those two are the only two that are really deserving of this award, though.

Musician Of The Year

Jerry Douglas (Dobro) — Should Win

Paul Franklin (Steel Guitar) — Should Win 

Derek Wells (Guitar) — Should Win

A wide-open field. Dan Huff will win like last year based off of his guitar and production work, but that doesn’t mean that he “should” win. 

There you have it. Let’s see if I’m correct next week. I’l be live-tweeting the whole deal at @jakeharris4 with a write-up afterwards.

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