Modern country music — and, for that matter, tonight's 43rd annual Country Music Association Awards — is all about safety, sales and the status quo. Talent doesn't mean squat if you don't own an end cap at Walmart.
Sure, Nashville will occasionally tip a hat to its edgy upstarts: the chicken fried Zac Brown Band, the exceptionally bearded Jamey Johnson, the incandescent Miranda Lambert. But there's a reason why the CMAs are routinely stuffed with the same chummy faces — Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Brad Paisley, Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood — year after year. Because they sell, and are sold, very well, never mind their milquetoast product.
That means the million-dollar story line at tonight's CMA hoedown will be 19-year-old Taylor Swift, the greatest gift to Music Row since Garth Brooks pulled on a hideous two-tone shirt. Swift is young, pretty and gifted; she's also phenomenally popular and reliably record-smashing. Swift's 2006 self-titled debut has spent more weeks on the Billboard Top 200 chart than any album — in any genre — this decade. Her followup, 2008's Fearless, has spent more time at No. 1 on Billboard's Top 200 than any other album this decade. And as for that Kanye West dustup at the MTV Video Music Awards? You better believe country will circle the wagons 'round its own.
So as I handicap a few of tonight's key CMA categories, keep in mind that if Swift is in the running — she's nominated for four awards and is also scheduled to perform — the gal from Wyomissing, Pa., will walk away a winner. Here are my picks:
Entertainer of the Year
This is the night's biggest prize, and four-time champ Chesney is usually the favorite, if only for his sold-out concert tours. But Swift isn't just selling big this year; the unsinkable blond is getting calls from Saturday Night Live and Guinness World Records. No offense to Kenny and fellow noms Keith Urban, Paisley and Strait, but if Swift doesn't win in, I'll go streak the Dallas Bull. Prediction: Swift.
New Artist of the Year
Darius Rucker, the man formerly known as Hootie, is the first African-American since Charley Pride in 1983 to score a No. 1 hit on the country charts. (The 43-year-old Rucker actually had three No. 1s from his debut country album, Learn to Live.) Fellow noms Randy Houser, Jamey Johnson and Jake Owen won't offer much of a challenge, but the Zac Brown Band, which is gaining a Dave Matthews-esque following, just might. Prediction: Rucker, but it'll be close.
Vocal Duo of the Year
The most successful duo in any genre, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn recently announced that they will part ways after a final 2010 concert swing. That, my friends, is a huge deal in Nashville. Sugarland may be hotter these days, and Montgomery Gentry may be cuter, but Brooks & Dunn are rural royalty. Let the hosannas and speechifyin' start now. Prediction: Brooks & Dunn.
Album of the Year
Paisley has been making some of the best music in Nashville for a while: smart, catchy, introspective. And he can pick a guitar for sure. But unless ol' Brad pulls on a frilly blond wig and starts writing breakup ballads about a Jonas Brother, his American Saturday Night will finish a distant second. You know the drill. Prediction: Swift's Fearless.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.