CMA Awards predictions: Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, Lionel Richie lead eclectic field

When a party guest list includes Snoop Dogg, Kelly Clarkson and Lionel Richie, chances are good the shindig's not going down in Nashville. But looky here: All three are up for shiny hardware at Thursday's 46th Country Music Association Awards, setting up these CMAs as possibly the weirdest, wildest ever.

Adding to the hullabaloo is the night's leading, and unlikely, nomination getter: nasally outlaw Eric Church, who's competing in five heavyweight categories, including song of the year for the wistful Springsteen. (I prefer Church's Drink in My Hand.) Church isn't an establishment guy, so his inclusion signals both a sea change and, if I'm ABC, a quick censor button.

Other things to ponder as you watch "country's biggest night:" With huge-selling new Taylor Swift album Red leaning toward club-pop and arena rock, could this be the last year Music Row claims her as their own? Also, Swift and Kenny Chesney have won the biggest award, Entertainer of the Year, the past six out of eight years. Both are nominated again, but could a newbie sneak in? Here are a few picks and predictions.

Entertainer of the Year: Let's be bold straight off the bat, shall we? Swift's album just came out last week, so she won't get Entertainer this year. Chesney had a mondo summer tour, and Jason Aldean sells out his shows, too, so they both have a shot — but they won't win either. Brad Paisley, who's co-hosting with Carrie Underwood, is a likable cowboy, and he's critically and commercially beloved by all. But my champion? Blake Shelton, a charming offbeat good-time guy who's all about hit songs, a hit TV show (The Voice) and a hit celeb marriage to Miranda Lambert.

Male Vocalist of the Year: Although Shelton has never taken Entertainer of the Year, he has won the male vocal category the past two times. It seems odd to predict he won't win vocal but he'll grab the big one, and yet those kind of incongruities happen all the time at the CMAs. Luke Bryan is really close to pure Nashville domination, and he might sneak a surprise upset here. But you can't go wrong with those five noms: Eric Church is going to snag this one.

Female Vocalist of the Year: Having Clarkson in this category is a stretch. Yes, she's had a smash duet with Aldean (2010's Don't You Wanna Stay) and recent single Mr. Know It All snuck onto the country charts. But this nomination is more about her soulful voice and Texas roots than anything else. Martina McBride and Underwood get nods just because they're icons, and Swift is the biggest star on the planet, so even though her new album isn't eligible, mentioning her is just good business. So who will be the winner for the third year running? Miranda Lambert, whose album Four the Record is another genre-stretching work of art.

Vocal Duo of the Year: I like this category, if only because country is the last genre that truly practices, and celebrates, the duo format. Brooks & Dunn used to run away with this year after year, and now Sugarland is on a seemingly unbeatable roll. I like Thompson Square better than both of those acts, but I absolutely love the Civil Wars over everyone in country these days. Are the Barton Hollow harmonizers a smart bet? Not at all! But that's how much I want Joy Williams and John Paul White — who play the Tampa Theatre Jan. 22 — to win this sucker.

Album of the Year: There are five LPs vying for this trophy, three of which — no offense Lady Antebellum and Dierks Bentley — are very, very good. Bryan's Tailgates & Tanlines is fat with fun, singable hits (Drunk on You especially), but your winner will be either Lambert's high-octane Four the Record or Church's bad-boy mission statement Chief. That's a tough one to call, cowboys and girls: My heart says Lambert, but my hungover head says Church.

Musical Event of the Year: This is a silly catchall category, as evidenced by West Coast rapper Snoop Dogg being nominated with Willie Nelson for the novelty cut Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die. There are some cool pairings here: Swift and the Civil Wars for The Hunger Games movie song Safe and Sound; Chesney and tourmate Tim McGraw gettin' all tough on Feel Like a Rock Star. But consider this: One of the biggest-selling records of the year, in any genre, is Lionel Richie's Tuskegee, which features a remake of Stuck on You with Darius Rucker. The CMAs snubbed Lionel pretty good, so they'll nod to his surprising commercial clout here. Let's dance on the ceiling, y'all!

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@tampabay.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

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The 2012 CMA Awards will broadcast live at 8 p.m. Thursday on ABC.

CMA Awards predictions: Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, Lionel Richie lead eclectic field 10/29/12 [Last modified: Monday, October 29, 2012 5:44pm]

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