Will Gabby Barrett, Kane Brown and Mickey Guyton take home their first CMA Awards wins? Will Church repeat last year’s win in the coveted entertainer of the year category? And who will take home album of the year?
Here are Billboard’s predictions by executive editor, West Coast and Nashville, Melinda Newman and Nashville staff writer Jessica Nicholson.
Entertainer of the yearEric Church Luke Combs Miranda Lambert Chris Stapleton Carrie Underwood
Newman: As many artists returned to the road as the pandemic began to wane, the focus on this award once will again will lean toward live efforts, even though that is not the only criteria. Church seemed a little befuddled when he finally captured the award last year, despite the shutdown, after three previous nominations — but he, Combs and Stapleton are the legitimate front runners this year as neither Lambert nor Underwood have mounted full tours in 2021. Combs just keeps getting stronger, and it feels like his time has come.
Will win: Luke Combs
Nicholson: Church is the presiding CMA entertainer of the year, and is poised to continue his reign. Over the past year, as the COVID-19 pandemic halted tours, Church stepped up as a leader, urging people to get vaccinated by getting his own vaccine as part of a cover shoot for Billboard. In September, he returned to the road for his 55-city Gather Again Tour, but first he released the three-part project Heart & Soul. In true Church fashion, he found a creative way to put his fans first, by releasing the “&” record to his Church Choir fan club members. Combs ascended to headlining stadiums this year, but don’t count out Underwood, who has remained in the spotlight through not only releasing two albums (her first gospel and Christmas projects), but also a string of collaborations, including her first bilingual collaboration with David Bisbal — further cementing herself as one of music’s most versatile artists.
Will win: Eric Church
Female vocalist of the yearGabby Barrett Miranda Lambert Ashley McBryde Maren Morris Carly Pearce
Newman: Oddly, past winner Underwood is not nominated here, despite having two No. 1 albums over the past year between her gospel and Christmas projects. Lambert has won seven out of the past 11 years, so she can never be ruled out, and Morris is the reigning champ — but it feels like it’s time to reward a new wave of phenomenal wave of women following in Lambert and Morris’s footsteps, and Pearce’s work felt the most soul-bearing this year.
Will win: Carly Pearce
Nicholson: Morris, the current winner in this category, is on a hot streak once again, as her collaboration “Chasing After You” with husband and fellow artist Ryan Hurd heats up Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Still, she did not release a studio album this year, while Pearce offered one of the most well-crafted albums of the year. Meanwhile, Lambert is a seven-time winner in the category, and though her last win came in 2017, she has been taking creative chances, including her Texas acoustic project The Marfa Tapes alongside Jon Randall and Jack Ingram, and her sizzling “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” collab with Elle King. Look for Lambert to reclaim the winner’s circle here.
Will win: Miranda Lambert
Male vocalist of the yearDierks Bentley Eric Church Luke Combs Thomas Rhett Chris Stapleton
Newman: For the last six ceremonies, the award has gone to Stapleton for four and then Combs for the past two — and given the strength of their output this past year, it’s hard to imagine that not continuing, although all five contenders have had solid years.
Will win: Chris Stapleton
Nicholson: Combs has had an 11-song winning streak atop Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, including notching No. 1 Country Airplay hits such as “Better Together” and “Forever After All” over the past year. Though he has formidable competition in this category, look for him to pick up a third win.
Will win: Luke Combs
Vocal group of the yearLady A Little Big Town Midland Old Dominion Zac Brown Band
Newman: Zac Brown Band is having one of their biggest hits at country radio in a number of years, but it probably comes too late to help them here. Old Dominion just keeps getting bigger and bigger. They’ve won the past three years, stopping Little Big Town’s six-year run, which stopped Lady A’s three-year run. Feels like Old Dominion is still leading the pack.
Will win: Old Dominion
Nicholson: Old Dominion has won in this category for the past three years, and this year, they earned a top 10 Billboard Country Airplay hit with “I Was On a Boat That Day.” While Lady A released “Like a Lady” and Midland doubled-down on their old-school charm by releasing a documentary, The Sonic Ranch, and an accompanying album of early demos to boot, look for Old Dominion to continue their winning streak.
Will win: Old Dominion
Vocal duo of the yearBrooks & Dunn Brothers Osborne Dan + Shay Florida Georgia Line Maddie & Tae
Newman: This is a toss-up between Brothers Osborne and Dan + Shay, both of whom put out great music during the past year. Dan + Shay are the reigning winners and they have been extraordinarily active on social media during the pandemic, as well as released a number of songs (their album came out after the eligibility period). But Brothers Osborne, who won three consecutive years starting in 2016, also put out an album of the year contender, which means voters are already looking at them to take home the biggest prize other than entertainer of the year.
Will win: Brothers Osborne
Nicholson: Dan + Shay have picked up where they left off with their arena tour (which was one of the first major country tours to shutter at the start of the pandemic), and released a handful of new tracks during the eligibility period. Meanwhile, Brothers Osborne released the impactful track “Younger Me” and the album Skeletons, which also earned a CMA nod this year for album of the year.
Will win: Brothers Osborne
New artist of the yearJimmie Allen Ingrid Andress Gabby Barrett Mickey Guyton HARDY
Newman: Every one of the nominees is more than deserving, and all have made inroads in varying ways whether topping the charts or as trailblazing singer/songwriters or moving the genre forward. Allen and Barrett are coming off best new male and female artist wins at the ACMs this spring, so that may sway voters. This is one of the closest races in years.
Will win: Gabby Barrett
Nicholson: Career-wise, Allen is one of the elder entries in this category, given his previous chart-toppers in 2018 (“Best Shot”) and 2020 (“Make Me Want To”). His current single, “Freedom Was a Highway” with Brad Paisley, is closing in on the top 10 on Country Airplay. Barrett earned a second No. 1 hit this year, with “The Good Ones” staying atop Country Airplay for three weeks. However, Guyton is finally getting her breakthrough year — with numerous top media looks, impactful songs such as “Black Like Me,” and the release of her 2020 EP Bridges (her full-length debut, Remember Her Name, fell outside the eligibility period) — and may be the front-runner here.
Will win: Mickey Guyton
Musician of the yearJenee Fleenor – Fiddle Paul Franklin – Steel Guitar Aaron Sterling – Drums Ilya Toshinskiy – Banjo Derek Wells – Guitar
Newman: All five of these musicians are magic weapons in the studio, bringing incredible skill and nuance to all the albums they are on. Toshinskiy has had a break-out year, but Franklin has been nominated 29 times before in this category alone. He’s way overdue to finally take home the trophy — just to hear his acceptance speech if nothing else.
Will win: Paul Franklin
Nicholson: Every musician in this category brings a versatile set of skills to their instrument. While Fleenor looks to add a third win in this category, 2021 marks Franklin’s 30th career nomination, with 29 of those being in the musician of the year category (the one outlier was for musical event of the year for his album Bakersfield with Vince Gill in 2016). This honor is long overdue.
Will win: Paul Franklin
Album of the year(Award goes to artist, producer(s) and mix engineer(s))
Carly Pearce Producers: Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne and Jimmy Robbins Mix engineer: Ryan Gore Big Machine Records
Dangerous: The Double AlbumMorgan Wallen Producers: Dave Cohen, Matt Dragstrem, Jacob Durrett, Charlie Handsome and Joey Moi Mix engineer: Joey Moi Big Loud Records / Republic Records
HeartEric Church Producer: Jay Joyce Mix engineers: Jason Hall and Jay Joyce EMI Records Nashville / Universal Music Group Nashville
SkeletonsBrothers Osborne Producer: Jay Joyce Mix engineers: Jason Hall and Jay Joyce EMI Records Nashville / Universal Music Group Nashville
Starting OverChris Stapleton Producers: Dave Cobb and Chris Stapleton Mix engineer: Vance Powell Mercury Nashville / Universal Music Group Nashville
Newman: Dangerous is definitely the undisputed sales leader here, but the other four entries feel like more personal statements. Pearce reaches a new artistic high mining her recent triumph and travails; Brothers Osborne take a quantum leap creatively and sonically with Skeletons, but this is a race between Stapleton and Church. Stapleton examines entering middle age with a wisdom and poignancy that pores from every note, while Church created a masterwork in a month, pushing himself and his collaborators to the brink to make an expansive 27-song triptych (Heart is one of three related albums released by Church over the span of two weeks) that brims with urgency.
Will win: Heart
Nicholson: One of the most-watched categories this year features Dangerous: The Double Album, which has been a sales juggernaut despite the fallout following Wallen uttering a racial slur earlier this year. Though the album is nominated, this industry-voted honor will likely go to Stapleton’s Starting Over or Church’s Heart — with Heart maybe having a slight advantage — though Pearce and Brothers Osborne also make strong contenders with their projects 29 and Skeletons, respectively.
Will win: Heart
Single of the year(Award goes to artist(s), producer(s) and mix engineer(s))
“Famous Friends”Chris Young with Kane Brown Producers: Corey Crowder and Chris Young Mix engineer: Sean Moffitt RCA Nashville
“The Good Ones”Gabby Barrett Producers: Ross Copperman and Zach Kale Mix engineers: Chris Galland and Manny Marroquin Warner Music Nashville
“Hell Of A View”Eric Church Producer: Jay Joyce Mix engineers: Jason Hall and Jay Joyce EMI Records Nashville / Universal Music Group Nashville
“One Night Standards”Ashley McBryde Producer: Jay Joyce Mix engineers: Jason Hall and Jay Joyce Warner Music Nashville
“Starting Over”Chris Stapleton Producers: Dave Cobb and Chris Stapleton Mix engineer: Vance Powell Mercury Nashville / Universal Music Group Nashville
Newman: Producer Jay Joyce is competing with himself here, which is not a surprise given how his name seems to appear on almost every hit coming out of Nashville. Each of these songs sounds great, which is part if the criteria here, but “The Good Ones,” “One Night Standards” and “Famous Friends” feel like career records for each of the artists performing them, with “Famous Friends” getting a slight edge.
Will win: “Famous Friends”
Nicholson: “The Good Ones” was a three-week No. 1 for Barrett, and continues her hot streak after her breakthrough crossover hit “I Hope.” “Hell of a View” continues Church’s string of well-written yet radio-friendly fare. McBryde’s “One Night Standards” is one of the oldest releases of the bunch, but also one of the most cleverly written tracks of the past couple of years. Stapleton’s Top 5 Billboard Country Airplay hit “Starting Over” has earned lots of media attention, while “Famous Friends” gets double the star power from Brown and Young. Still, the radio staying power of “The Good Ones” puts it at the forefront of contenders in this category.
Will win: “The Good Ones”
Song of the year(Award goes to songwriter(s))
“Forever After All”Luke Combs, Drew Parker, Robert Williford
“The Good Ones”Gabby Barrett, Zach Kale, Emily Landis, Jim McCormick
“Hell Of A View”Casey Beathard, Eric Church, Monty Criswell
“One Night Standards”Nicolette Hayford, Shane McAnally, Ashley McBryde
“Starting Over”Mike Henderson, Chris Stapleton
Newman: The same songs competING for single of the year show up here, except “Famous Friends” gets swapped for “Forever After All.” For McBryde, “One Night Standards” brought her to a new level after years of grinding it out, while the other songs here are extremely personal statements and feel distinctly unique to the artist singing it. Likely a squeaker between “Standards” and Combs’ “Forever After All,” which is a romantic ode to his wife and their enduring love that made a huge Hot 100 splash when it debuted in late 2020.
Will win: “Forever After All”
Nicholson: The category has some tough competition, led by the Combs juggernaut “Forever After All,” which topped Country Airplay for six weeks. Barrett also has a three-week No. 1 in the running, while Stapleton’s “Starting Over” was a top five Country Airplay hit and earned a plethora of media attention.
Will Win: “Forever After All”
Musical event of the year(Award goes to artist(s) and producer(s))
“Buy Dirt”Jordan Davis and Luke Bryan Producer: Paul DiGiovanni MCA Nashville / Universal Music Group Nashville
“Chasing After You”Ryan Hurd with Maren Morris Producers: Aaron Eshuis and Teddy Reimer Arista Nashville
“Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)”Elle King & Miranda Lambert Producer: Martin Johnson RCA Records / Columbia Nashville
“Famous Friends”Chris Young with Kane Brown Producers: Corey Crowder and Chris Young RCA Nashville
“half of my hometown”Kelsea Ballerini (featuring Kenny Chesney) Producers: Kelsea Ballerini, Ross Copperman and Jimmy Robbins Black River Entertainment
Newman: Each of these pairings works amazingly well, whether the result is a sultry number from married couple Hurd and Morris, emotionally nostalgic with East Tennesseans Ballerini and Chesney or hilariously sleazy with King and Lambert, but Young and Brown’s “Famous Friends” feels joyously authentic and fun in an undeniably captivating way.
Will win: “Famous Friends”
Nicholson: Sony Music Nashville has two of the top contenders in this category, with the Kane Brown/Chris Young hit “Famous Friends” vying against Ryan Hurd and Maren Morris’ Hot 100/Country Airplay hit “Chasing After You.” However, “Famous Friends” outpaces “Chasing After You” on the country charts.
Will win: “Famous Friends”
Music video of the year(Award goes to artist(s) and director(s))
“Chasing After You”Ryan Hurd with Maren Morris Director: TK McKamy
“Famous Friends”Chris Young with Kane Brown Director: Peter Zavadil
Dierks BentleyDirectors: Wes Edwards, Travis Nicholson, Ed Pryor, Running Bear and Sam Siske
“half of my hometown”Kelsea Ballerini (featuring Kenny Chesney) Director: Patrick Tracy
“Younger Me”Brothers Osborne Director: Reid Long
Newman: Though all the other entries feel way more personal than “Gone,” Bentley’s video is the most ambitious here, featuring a disheveled, despondent Bentley guzzling beer with a remote in his hand in a cheap motel as he flips channels to find himself spoofing scenes from various classic films and TV shows, whether it be Casablanca or MacGyver. “Younger Me” has an important message, but “Gone” is the video where you discover something fun and new every time you watch it.
Will win: “Gone”
Nicholson: Brothers Osborne’s “Younger Me” is a stark, black-and-white clip that helps put the song’s timely message of acceptance and inclusivity front and center. Meanwhile, Bentley’s “Gone” finds the singer-songwriter again showing off his comedic acting chops and entertaining persona, and Ballerini’s “half of my hometown” is a beautifully detailed look at the small-town life Ballerini might have led if she had not made that fateful move to Nashville to pursue her ambitions.
Will win: “Younger Me”