Chris Stapleton and Thomas Rhett are the leading nominees going into the 53rd Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday. The men will go head-to-head in categories including Album of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year. Either man could sweep every category in which he’s nominated or walk away empty handed. Neither scenario seems likely.
Here’s what we think will happen during the ACM Awards, which will air live from Las Vegas at 8 p.m. ET Sunday on CBS.
Entertainer of the Year
Who should win: Garth Brooks has deservedly won Entertainer of the Year the last two years at the CMA Awards. Brooks wrapped a three-year North American tour in December. He headlined multiple nights at each tour stop, and often sold more than 100,000 tickets per town. Brooks is revered as the ultimate entertainer among most artists in the genre, charted a No. 1 hit with Ask Me How I Know in 2017 and used his downtime on tour to host sports camps for kids in nearly every city he played.
Who will win: Even Brooks thinks no one has a chance against Jason Aldean. Aldean was on stage in Las Vegas during the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting that left 58 people dead. Since the Oct. 1 tragedy, people have looked to Aldean for guidance. He stepped up, performed a tribute on Saturday Night Live, visited shooting victims, shared his personal story of fear and healing, played benefits and been an example of mourning and moving forward. He’s in the midst of what he believes could be his most successful song to date — You Make It Easy — and his eighth studio album Rearview Town is in stores now.
Male Vocalist of the Year
Who should win: This category is stacked with deserving nominees. There is no one who should NOT win. For more than a decade, Chris Young’s voice has been considered one of the strongest in country music. He released new album Losing Sleep, charted his 10th No. 1 single in 2017, became a member of the Grand Ole Opry and will spend 2018 headlining amphitheaters and arenas.
Twenty years into his solo career, Keith Urban is still on fire. He consistently reimagines his sound and his songs, flexes new pockets in his voice and approaches each day in country music with deep musical vision and a dedication to details.
Who will win: Thomas Rhett or Chris Stapleton. Toss a coin. Both men were unstoppable in the last calendar year.
Rhett’s songs including Unforgettable and Marry Me sprinted up the country music radio airplay charts and his new single, the autobiographical Life Changes is certain to repeat the trend. Fans love the way he blends his personal life into his career and his vast out-of-genre interests into songs.
Stapleton is regarded as the torch-bearer of traditional country music. The soulful textures in his voice have timeless appeal. While country radio has been slow to embrace Stapleton, fans haven’t. The country singer released two new albums — From A Room: Volume 1 and From a Room: Volume 2 — in 2017 and with the success of his debut Traveller, he charted three No. 1 albums in 12 months.
Female Vocalist of the Year
Who should win: Lauren Alaina is the only female singer in country music to have two No. 1 hits in 2017. She has one of the most reliable and powerful voices in country music, is an open-hearted role model for young girls and the picture of hope and persistence. Since placing second on American Idol in 2011, she has battled an eating disorder, a fickle music industry and thrived in spite of both. She won’t, though — she isn’t nominated.
Who will win: Miranda Lambert has won this title every year since 2009. While she’s recently been somewhat absent from country radio, her musical vulnerability and honesty are still cherished in a landscape of slicker, pop productions. You can’t count out Maren Morris, also a critical darling. She had success in 2017 with I Could Use a Love Song, was widely lauded for her song Dear Hate and found crossover success with Zedd on The Middle.
Album of the Year
Who should win: Little Big Town’s The Breaker is a seamless and diverse package of harmony-rich songs that transcend trend, reflect the world and country music.
Who will win: Chris Stapleton’s From A Room: Volume 1 or Thomas Rhett’s Life Changes. The men represent two popular — and distinctly different — edges of country music. Stapleton’s timeless and inarguable country songs are hard to beat. But, people love a good story. Rhett captivates fans and the music industry with his fearless approach to genre and blends his personal life into his songs. While he jokes that his album is “country-ish,” it is formidable competition.
Group of the Year
Who should win: Little Big Town. Have you heard those harmonies?
Who will win: Little Big Town
Duo of the Year
Who should win: Florida Georgia Line. Hands down, between headlining stadiums and their success with Meant to Be, Florida Georgia Line made a huge impact in 2017. But for some reason, industry voters don’t like to vote for them. Florida Georgia Line reflects what music fans respond to — and awards shows don’t always reflect music fans. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill also had a heck of a year with sold-out arena shows and a stellar new album. However, does anyone view them as a country duo instead of individual genre icons?
Who will win: Brothers Osborne. The brothers captured their second CMA win in the category in November, and with the success of Shoot Me Straight and It Ain’t My Fault they’ve deepened their connection with music industry types and country fans alike.
Single Record of the Year
Who should win: Little Big Town’s Better Man. Penned by Taylor Swift, the song showcases the best of the artists who sang it — and the one who wrote it.
Who will win: Sam Hunt’s Body Like a Backroad, based on sales, digital play and radio airplay. Body Like a Backroad was No. 1 for 34 weeks on country charts. Don’t count out Midland’s Drinkin’ Problem. The song was a huge single and catapulted the trio from unknowns to amongst the most talked about artists in the genre.
Song of the Year
Who should win: Female. Written by Ross Copperman, Nicolle Galyon and Shane McAnally, the song was penned as an anthem for women last fall when stories of violence against women were making headlines daily via the #metoo movement. Keith Urban reacted quickly, recording and releasing Female in a matter of days to offer support at a time it was needed most.
Who will win: Not to get all inside baseball, but when you look at the nominees — there are three songs from acts signed to Universal Music Group Nashville and one that isn’t. When it comes to voting, it seems that Miranda Lambert’s Tin Man has the advantage because no other songs are competing for votes from her record label. Plus, it’s a gut-wrenching country song ripped from an emotionally painful time in her life. And we all know there’s little more appealing than a well-written heartache ballad.
Vocal Event of the Year
Who should win: Kane Brown and Lauren Alaina’s What Ifs. The song showcases the best of their voices, is certified double platinum and is among the most heard country songs of 2018.
Who will win: Kane Brown and Lauren Alaina’s What Ifs. But, you can never count out superstars. Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood’s The Fighter may be nearly two years old, but with star power like that attached, there is no expiration date.
Music Video of the Year
Who should win: Thomas Rhett’s Marry Me
Who will win: Thomas Rhett’s Marry Me