Modern country music, perhaps like never before, is split between nuance and knucklehead, sly ballads and beer-bong anthems, all of which will be on disparate display during Wednesday's 47th annual CMA Awards. The two biggest storylines going in to "country music's biggest night" are (1) Luke Bryan, the spring-breakin', cliche-ridin' backwards-ballcap-wearin' corporate prince; and (2) contemplative folkie Kacey Musgraves, whose leading six nominations are a good sign that Nashville craves more free-thinking originals a la Miranda Lambert.
That doesn't make handicapping the CMAs any easier, of course. When it comes to this homey genre, fans come first, and Blake Shelton, Taylor Swift, Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood have a ton of 'em. With that in mind, here are a few expert guesses on the top categories:
ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR: This one should be a slam-dunk for Bryan, the only artist in the 10-year history of Tampa's outdoor amphitheatre (whatever it's been called) to sell out back-to-back shows. That's 40,000 people who dig his chummy, boozy Mad Libs party jams about drinking "real good feel good stuff" and taking his tipsy ladies down to the river for a catfish dinner. His competition is BIG, though: Shelton is omnipresent on radio and TV; Aldean only makes hits; Swift is the biggest star in any genre; and "King" George Strait is royalty nearing the end of his career. I'm hearing whispers about Strait winning this, especially since Zac Brown (who will be performing with Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl during the show!) just ripped Bryan for being an empty-headed party boy with nothing to say. Still, Luke Bryan is having one of those monster Swift-sized years you just can't ignore.
SINGLE OF THE YEAR: Musgraves' Merry Go 'Round is a midtempo universal heartbreaker about the dizzying nature of life, but it has a better shot winning song of the year, a songwriter's award. Instead, the CMAs have to make sure Florida Georgia Line, a good-time duo with an ear for a hook, get their props for the hip-hop-influenced Cruise, the second-most downloaded country single of all time. (First? Lady Antebellum's Need You Now.) By the way, Florida Georgia Line will also win vocal duo of the year, but I'm pulling for the since-disbanded Civil Wars — if only to see if they both take the stage together.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Kacey Musgraves is a 25-year-old Texas singer-songwriter with an indie vibe but major-label chops. She's smart, funny, beautiful — yes, your basic marketer's dream. She's going to win best new artist and female vocalist of the year. She should also take this category for her near-perfect breakout LP, Same Trailer, Different Park. (If you're wondering about Tay-Tay, she'll win music event of the year, for Highway Don't Care, her so-so duet with Tim McGraw and Keith Urban. That said, country still claiming Swift is almost as silly as country claiming Kelly Clarkson, who's up for female vocalist, too.)
MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR: The best male singer on the CMAs stage will no doubt be Darius Rucker, who just might take home some hardware for the Bob Dylan-penned Wagon Wheel. But alas, Hootie is inexplicably not up for this one. Eric Church is the second-best singer in the group, but save for a summer concert swing with Kenny Chesney, E.C. was pretty dormant this year. Nope, this one is all Luke Bryan and his dumb-fun songs. He's a likable fella who can reference Conway Twitty and T-Pain in the same song and not seem like a complete jerk. And that's not easy to pull off.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.