The Country Music Association annual awards ceremony will take place on November 9th, 2011, presented by the pairing of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who have become something of a fixture in that role in the past few years. Last year Brad also triumphed by winning the Entertainer of the Year title for the first time. The show will feature performances from many of the nominees, plus American Idol Scotty McCreery and pop star Lionel Richie, who has been recording duets with country stars for release next spring.
Here are our thoughts about who will walk away smiling next Wednesday night, category by category:
Entertainer of the Year
Blake Shelton: Jonathan Pappalardo, Occasional Hope, Razor X, J.R. Journey
Occasional Hope: I feel this is a genuinely open category this year. Brad Paisley is the reigning Entertainer, having finally won the long overdue title last year, and is clearly popular with voters. However, I think he has passed his peak both commercially and (more importantly) artistically, with relatively disappointing sales figures for recent albums, although he continues to do well at radio with a #2 and two #1 hits over the period. He is also one of the top earners in country music, alongside Taylor Swift. Teen favorite Swift won the title controversially in 2009, then was largely ignored last year, and is back again with a brace of nominations. She undoubtedly has the biggest international and pop profile of all the nominees, as well as the biggest sales, with over three million copies sold so far of Speak Now in the U.S. and platinum or multi-platinum status in a number of other countries, some (like the Philippines) with little exposure to country music. She has also toured successfully overseas this year. Of course, that makes her an international pop star as much or more than a country star who has gotten lucky with pop airplay; how far should that sway the CMA?
I have a sneaking suspicion that Jason Aldean could be a big winner this year overall. He’s had a good year, with one of the best-selling albums (over 1.5 million sales), and his brand of country-rock, while far heavier on the rock than the country, has carved out a niche in the market for himself. I’m not a fan myself, but he is undeniably one of the big names in country music at the moment, with two #1 and a #2 hit single from this album, and a crossover AC hit thanks to his duet with Kelly Clarkson. But my gut feeling is that it’s a bit soon to win the top award this year. Blake Shelton, despite his title as reigning Male Vocalist, is the other surprise nominee, and he could just swing it based on the impact he has had as an ambassador for the genre, with his TV role on The Voice. He has also had two #1 singles with ‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’ and ‘Honey Bee’, and the frankly baffling inclusion of his poorly selling EP among the Album nominees signals that the Association voters are keen to reward him.
Razor X: It’s hard for me to get very excited about any of these nominees, but Shelton seems to be on a hot streak so I think he will win. And if I have to root for one of these nominees, I’d probably go with him.
Jonathan: This is a case of the veterans versus the newcomers. Urban hasn’t won since 2005 and I don’t expect that drought to end this year. Paisley (who should win) and Swift are strong contenders, but their steady success isn’t enough to help them prevail. It comes down to Shelton versus Aldean, and in a battle between the country rocker and the TV star, Shelton walks away with his first Entertainer trophy.
J.R. Journey: I think Paisley and Urban are just slot-fillers at this point in their careers, so they’re out. Jason Aldean had a strong year and so did Taylor Swift, but neither exploded into the mainstream – Taylor’s been there for several years now – like Blake Shelton, with a major television and soundtrack push. He’s on a major upswing, and that ought to sway voters enough to give him the edge.
Jason Aldean, J.R. Journey
Blake Shelton: Jonathan, Occasional Hope, Razor X
Razor X: I’ll stick with my Blake-is-on-a-hot-streak theory. But to be truthful, I really don’t care who wins this one as long as it isn’t Jason Aldean.
Jonathan: There is arguably no bigger country singer than Blake Shelton right now. He’s not only charting consecutive number one hits, he’s also taking the small screen by storm on The Voice. This is his award to lose and I don’t see that happening. I would love for Chesney to score his first win, though. His recent artistic resurgence has provided some of the most rewarding singles of his career.
OH: The only one of these nominees not to also be shortlisted for Entertainer of the Year is Kenny Chesney, the veteran of the group, who has scored a platinum album and three #1 hits. I think either Aldean or Shelton will win, and as the CMA has a tendency to get stuck in a rut and reward someone in this category for two or three years running, I’m guessing Shelton will win his second title.
J.R. Journey: I see Jason Aldean winning here after losing in the Album and Single categories. I’m ruling out Blake Shelton in this race since the Entertainer of the Year isn’t traditionally awarded in their respective Vocalist category. Plus, I think the CMA will want to reward Aldean’s massive sales year.
Miranda Lambert: Jonathan, Razor X, J.R. Journey
Taylor Swift: Occasional Hope
Razor X: Miranda has had the most success this year of any of these nominees, so I think she should and will win.
OH: Sara made a big comeback this year, although the music was below par; she might be a sentimental choice. Defending champion Miranda has had patchy success with her singles and hasn’t released an album in the qualifying period, but is still the hot critical favourite, and has sparked some interest with her Pistol Annies side project. Carrie Underwood has had a fairly quiet year apart from her duet with Brad Paisley. Martina McBride is on a real downslide, and has no chance. Swift has had another good year, and I suspect will win after being frozen out last year in her post-clean sweep backlash – plus she is the only female nominated in the Entertainer category. Let’s just hope she doesn’t give us another of her patented out of tune live performances on the show to embarrass the genre again.
Jonathan: The usual suspects are included here and it’s nice to see Evans back in the game. She’s never taken home this award and I would love for it to be her year. Problem is her latest single didn’t repeat on the success of “A Little Bit Stronger” and her latest album seems to be fading away. In that case I give the award to Lambert, who’s proving that her success at country radio is no fluke.
J.R. Journey: Martina McBride had one marginal hit single this year, and shouldn’t even be in the running. If the voters were just adding old favorites to round out the category, why not leave Reba in the running, or substitute her for Dolly Parton or Connie Smith, who both released winning new albums this year. Underwood and Swift haven’t made any real waves this year, and Miranda Lambert is the better choice anyway.
The Band Perry: Occasional Hope, J.R. Journey
Luke Bryan: Jonathan
Chris Young: Razor X
OH: Yet again, the CMA shows they have a very odd interpretation of the word “new”. Only Thompson Square strikes me as genuinely new, and with only one significant hit, I don’t see them winning. The likely, and on the whole deserving, winners, The Band Perry have been around for two years, but in the qualifying year released their debut album and had two really big hits including the breakthrough ‘If I Die Young’ which has been registered triple platinum. I haven’t quite warmed to their music yet but they are clearly a talented group.
Chris Young has a truly great country voice and is by far my personal favourite of the acts nominated – but why is he here and not in the main Male Vocalist category (which he should be winning)? He’s been around since 2006 and has three albums out on RCA. Eric Church emerged that same year and Luke Bryan made his debut in 2007. None of these guys has had a year significantly better than they did the year before, so even if it was still the old Horizon Award they don’t really seem to be eligible.
Razor X: I think that Luke Bryan and Chris Young are the two serious contenders in this category. Young has had more chart success than Bryan, this year, so I think Chris will take home the trophy.
Jonathan: Despite his nosedive in artistic quality, this is Bryan’s award to lose. He’s the biggest star here, and it’s likely the CMA will hold off on awarding The Band Perry until next year. But with his four straight #1 hits and his traditional sound, I would love for Young to walk away the victor. He seems to be the only nominee here who cares to honor the history of country music all while pushing the genre forward.
J.R. Journey: I’m a little surprised by Chris Young and Luke Bryan’s inclusion here. And even though Eric Church had a sort of grassroots breakthrough and a chart-topping album, he’s in the back of the pack with Thompson Square. The obvious front-runner to me is The Band Perry.
The Band Perry, J.R. Journey
Lady Antebellum: Jonathan, Razor X
Little Big Town
Zac Brown Band: Occasional Hope
Jonathan: If these awards were based solely on the eligibility period, Lady Antebellum would lose. They haven’t been able to match the success of “Need You Now” nor have they released anything nearly as good. Based on sheer talent, Little Big Town would win but I’d love to see the criminally overlooked Zac Brown Band take home their first win in this category.
Razor X: I would really like to see the Zac Brown Band win, but this one is a no-brainer: Lady Antebellum is currently riding a wave of commercial success.
OH: The Zac Brown Band are my favorites too, and coming off a string of #1s, all very diverse, they should and I hope will win. The Band Perry are also on a roll, but I think the CMA will be happy giving them the New Artist award this year. Lady A’s music has been blander than blancmange ever since ‘Need You Now’, and critics are beginning to point that out, although they are still selling well. Little Big Town, while talented, are very hit-and-miss commercially, and Rascal Flatts have been plowing their usual furrow successfully enough, but haven’t had any breakthroughs.
J.R. Journey: I have to be the dissenting voice here. “Need You Now” was the big pop-country crossover hit for 2010, but this year belongs to “If I Die Young”. They came on fast and strong, and I think The Band Perry will nudge Lady Antebellum from this category.
The Civil Wars
Sugarland: Jonathan, Occasional Hope, Razor X, J.R. Journey
OH: I’m sad to see Joey + Rory dropped from the nominations this year, but I have to admit that their singles haven’t made any headway with radio, and sales of the excellent Album # 2 have not matched those of their debut. The Civil Wars, the past-their-peak Montgomery Gentry, and newcomers Steel Magnolia and Thompson Square have no chance against the juggernaut that is Sugarland, even if their recent music has been utterly awful.
Razor X: Not much to get excited about in this category. Sugarland is the only logical choice here.
Jonathan: On paper, the only real stars here are Sugarland. Even though their third album was an artistic dud it won’t be enough to block their win. Wouldn’t it be great though if the CMA shocked us all and gave the award to The Civil Wars? It would certainly silence everyone who said they were only there to fill out the category. But no matter what, this is Sugarland’s trophy and no one’s going to take it away from them.
J.R. Journey: I’m not a big fan of the Incredible Machine album either, but Sugarland did release two of the year’s best singles with “Stuck Like Glue” and “Little Miss”. Jennifer and Kristian deserve the trophy more than any other pair for sure.
Blake Shelton – All About Tonight
Jason Aldean – My Kinda Party: Jonathan
Taylor Swift – Speak Now: Razor X
Brad Paisley – This Is Country Music: Occasional Hope, J.R. Journey
Zac Brown Band – You Get What You Give
Jonathan: The most boring list in years finds a six-pack from a newly emerged superstar up against a trite effort from a country-rocker. It also sees a superstar coasting on his artistic merits. In terms of quality only Swift’s Speak Now and Zac Brown Band’s You Get What You Give deserve to be included here. Neither will win though, as Aldean’s Kinda Party might be just what the CMA is looking for. But if there’s any justice in the world, Zac Brown will walk away victorious.
OH: The Zac Brown Band’s album was not altogether to my taste, but it is the most interesting and artistically adventurous of the records nominated, and deserves to win. The mere nomination of Blake’s SixPak defies belief: it’s too short, not very good, and sold very little. Swift’s album sold the most, but some of those sales were to pop fans, and she has not yet matured as an artist no longer being the teenage prodigy of years past. I would not be surprised if Aldean’s rock-infused country wins, although I think it more likely that he will be rewarded in other categories. I think this will be the award the CMA gets most wrong this year, with Brad Paisley being rewarded for his poorest effort to date.
Razor X: I’d like to see the Zac Brown Band win this one, but I have a sinking feeling that it’s probably going to go to Taylor Swift.
J.R. Journey: It’s a toss-up between Swift and Paisley for me here, so I just flipped a coin. Paisley wins!
‘A Little Bit Stronger’ – Sara Evans
‘Colder Weather’ – Zac Brown Band: Razor X
‘Don’t You Wanna Stay’ – Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson: Jonathan
‘Honey Bee’ – Blake Shelton
‘If I Die Young’ – The Band Perry: Occasional Hope, J.R. Journey
Razor X: I don’t actually dislike any of these songs except for the Aldean/Clarkson entry, so I could live with any of the others as Single of the Year. “Colder Weather” is my favorite of the bunch so I would like to see that one win.
OH: ‘Colder Weather’ is the best of these, but I think is the least likely winner. Will the Association reward Sara’s comeback, Aldean’s cross-genre collaboration (even if neither genre is really country), Blake’s unadventurous big hit, or The Band Perry’s homage to ‘The Lady of Shalott’? My guess is the latter, with Sara the outside bet.
Jonathan: Another award to pin Aldean and Shelton against each other sees Aldean’s duet with Kelly Clarkson coming out on top. If there was ever an award he could win without offending anyone, it’s this one. I still can’t believe “Honey Bee” scored a nomination here; it’s the first time I don’t understand the thinking of the CMA. They pin one of the worst singles of the year against Evans’ comeback hit, Zac Brown’s masterpiece, and The Band Perry’s instant classic. In any other year Zac Brown would (and should) win it, but the flash of “Don’t You Wanna Stay” will be too much for the voters to ignore.
J.R. Journey: Each contender here went to #1 on the country charts and into the Top 40 of the Hot 100. But none of them hit bigger than the triple platinum-selling “If I Die Young”. I expect a Grammy sweep for The Band Perry following this year’s CMA haul.
‘Colder Weather’: Razor X
‘Dirt Road Anthem’
‘If I Die Young’: Jonathan, Occasional Hope, J.R. Journey
‘You And Tequila’
Razor X: Again, “Colder Weather” is the best of the bunch.
OH: Once Again, ‘Colder Weather’ is my favorite but I predict ‘If I Die Young’ for the win. ‘Dirt Road Anthem’ is groundbreaking, if not in a good way. The much-praised ‘You And Tequila’ is well-written, but not sufficiently so for Chesney’s soporific interpretation to keep me invested. And Taylor Swift’s juvenile riposte to those who have so unkindly pointed out the all-too-evident flaws in her singing is really not that good a song.
J.R. Journey: I think Matraca Berg and Deana Carter have the trump card with “You And Tequila” for the Zac Brown Band’s ace in this category. It’s too bad “If I Die Young” is going to sweep the show.
Jonathan: Disrespect George Jones and his former notorious drinking ways and you score a song of the year nomination. If Gilbert and Ford win out here (for ‘Dirt Road Anthem’) then I’ve lost all hope for the purity of country music. I fully expect Kimberly Perry to win here; the CMA love their solo female songwriters, and she’s written one heck of a song. Swift is also present here with her most country sounding song in years, but no matter how you slice it, “If I Die Young” has the bigger impact.
‘As She’s Walking Away’ – Zac Brown Band with Alan Jackson: Jonathan, Occasional Hope, J.R. Journey
‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ – Loretta Lynn, Miranda Lambert and Sheryl Crow
‘Don’t You Wanna Stay’ – Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson: Razor X
‘Old Alabama’ – Brad Paisley with Alabama
‘You And Tequila’ – Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter
OH: I think this is the most open category. My vote would go to ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’, as this teaming up of a genuine country music legend with one of the biggest current stars (plus Sheryl Crow) is the only nomination worthy of the title “Musical Event of the Year”. Alan Jackson’s cameo on The Zac Brown Band’s record is the most finished product, perhaps the most appealing to the CMA, and I would not be unhappy with its winning.
Jonathan: A hit or miss category in the year of duets. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” is a pointless remake, “Old Alabama” is a sloppy excuse for honoring a legend, and no matter how fabulous Grace Potter is, “You and Tequila” really isn’t a duet let alone an event. That leaves Jason/Kelly and Zac Brown/Alan. Since it’s won this category at every other award show, and it’s a fabulous song, so I fully expect “As She’s Walking Away” to take this home for not just being a cool sounding record, but for making Alan Jackson relevant again, if only for a brief moment.
J.R. Journey: “You And Tequila” is my favorite country song of the year; the teaming of Grace Potter’s throaty harmonies to Chesney’s smooth vocal is an ice-melting combination. I guess I don’t understand the mass appeal of “As She’s Walking Away”, but I still see it winning. I agree with Jonathan about “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Old Alabama”, but not about Alan Jackson’s irrelevance.
Razor X: I hate to say it, but Aldean and Clarkson had a big hit with their duet so they will probably win. “As She’s Walking Away” would be my preference. It would be nice to see “Coal Miner’s Daughter” win, but it didn’t have much of a commercial impact and I don’t think there’s currently enough respect for tradition among the CMA voters for that to happen.
Blake Shelton – ‘Honey Bee’
The Band Perry – ‘If I Die Young’
Taylor Swift – ‘Mean’: Jonathan
Brad Paisley – ‘Old Alabama’: Occasional Hope
Kenny Chesney – ‘You And Tequila’
OH: The overwrought, muddled and self-consciously artsy ‘If I Die Young’ reflects the band’s youth. The dog has more personality and charisma than Blake or the female lead in ‘Honey Bee’, and even he looks thoroughly bored. ‘Mean’ is childishly exaggerated, but fits the song. Chesney’s video is quite atmospheric but doesn’t add a lot to the song; I could see this winning. The Paisley video is nicely put together , sometimes funny and generally likeable – and rather better than the pedestrian song it accompanies.
Jonathan: Chesney and Paisley have been here before, and these latest offerings aren’t special enough to outshine the other videos in this category. Shelton’s “Honey Bee” is as generic as the song, but The Band Perry and Swift have shown imagination in bringing their songs to life. Swift wins out here, though, since “Mean” mixes the right amount of flash, innovation, and star power to take this award home. Plus I love the message that the mean girls lose in the end. It gives hope to anyone being bullied that brighter days really do lie ahead.
Sam Bush – mandolin
Jerry Douglas – dobro
Paul Franklin – steel guitar
Dann Huff – guitar: Occasional Hope, Razor X
Mac McAnally – guitar
Razor X: Just a wild guess because Huff is a relative newcomer to this category and a fresher face may stand a better chance at winning.
Occasional Hope: I find this category the hardest to predict, because all the nominees are legitimately talented. I think I’ll bet on Huff too, because his aggressive electric guitar style has had a big impact on commercial country music in the past few years.
Comment and let us know who you think will win this year.