CMA Prediction: McGraw a Good Bet for Top Honor

Amid all the security checks, the duets by Willie and Sheryl and Garth and George and the O Brother excitement, there’s the matter of who will win when the Country Music Association hands out awards for the 35th time.

Trying to predict CMA award winners is just a tad easier than trying to find ol’ Osama bin Laden’s hideout. But like the U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan, we’re gonna give it our best shot.

Watch the broadcast beginning at 8 p.m. ET/PT Wednesday (Nov. 7) on CBS, live from the heavily guarded Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, and see if we’re on target -– or full of sand.

We feared that a long session with Miss Cleo might be cost-prohibitive, so, herewith, our best guesses:

Horizon Award : Jessica Andrews, Nickel Creek, Jamie O’Neal, Keith Urban and Phil Vassar

Acoustic trio Nickel Creek has made the most interesting music, but this comes down to a race between Jamie O’Neal and Keith Urban . Both have gold albums; both won Academy of Country Music Awards in May. O’Neal is moving faster. She gets the award.

Music video of the year : “Ashes by Now” – Lee Ann Womack, Director: Gregg Home; “Born to Fly” – Sara Evans, Director: Peter Zavadil; “I Would’ve Love You Anyway” – Trisha Yearwood, Director: chris rogers; “There Is No Arizona” – Jamie O’Neal, Director: Lawrence Carroll; “www.memory” – Alan Jackson, Director: Morgan Lawley

Sara Evans has five award nominations total. This is the one she wins. With director Peter Zavadil, she fashioned a clip that cleverly recalls The Wizard of Oz.

Musician of the year: Stuart Duncan, Paul Franklin, John Hobbs, Dann Huff and Brent Mason

Dann Huff, whose reputation for production (Lonestar , SHeDAISY ) outdistances his profile as a guitar player, will out-poll the talented competition.

Vocal event of the year: “Alright, I’m Wrong” – Dwight Yoakam (duet with Buck Owens); “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby” – Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch; “Hard to Be a Husband, Hard to Be a Wife” – Brad Paisley and Chely Wright; “I’ll Fly Away” – Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch; “Too Country” – Brad Paisley, George Jones, Bill Anderson and Buck Owens

The Harris /Krauss /Welch collaboration deserves to win. Paisley and his Hall of Fame buddies will take the trophy, however, in a “Too Country” victory that parallels last year’s “Murder on Music Row” triumph.

Vocal duo of the year: Bellamy Brothers, Brooks & Dunn, Montgomery Gentry, The Kinleys and The Warren Brothers

Brooks & Dunn reclaim their trophy (eight previous wins) from tour mates Montgomery Gentry .

Vocal group of the year: Alabama, Diamond Rio, Dixie Chicks, Lonestar and Nickel Creek

Will the Dixie Chicks suffer industry backlash for their lawsuit against Sony? Lonestar has had a banner year while the Chicks were inactive. Lonestar wins.

Male vocalist of the year: Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley and George Strait

Remarkably, Alan Jackson has never won this award, but McGraw’s not ready to give it up after only one year. He wins again.

Female vocalist of the year: Sara Evans, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Lee Ann Womack and Trisha Yearwood

The most difficult category of the year to predict. Hill won’t win because she’s done very little. Yearwood staged a comeback, and McBride made a statement with her greatest hits compilation. It’s just a hunch, but I’m thinking Yearwood — who has two of these awards already -– returns to the winners’ circle.

Song of the year: “Born to Fly” – Sara Evans; “How Do You Like Me Now?!” – Toby Keith; “I’m Already There” – Lonestar; “Murder on Music Row” – George Strait and Alan Jackson; “One More Day” – Diamond Rio

“One More Day” makes an eloquent statement without overdoing the sentiment. It’s the song of the year.

Album of the year: Born to Fly – Sara Evans; O Brother Where Art Thou? – Various Artists; Set This Circus Down – Tim McGraw; Steers & Stripes – Brooks & Dunn; When Somebody Loves You – Alan Jackson

At No. 1 on the country album chart for 23 weeks and with 2.5 million copies sold, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the album of the year. The CMA should be ashamed if it picks any other set.

Single of the year: “Ain’t Nothing ’Bout You” – Brooks & Dunn; “Born to Fly” – Sara Evans; “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” – The Soggy Bottom Boys; “I’m Already There” – Lonestar; “One More Day” – Diamond Rio

Radio decision-makers ran blubbering from the room to call their families when Lonestar played “I’m Already There” at this year’s Country Radio Seminar. Diamond Rio ’s single has tremendous emotional pull, too. In the wake of Sept. 11, both songs have had another bump in airplay. After a coin toss, I’ll go with “One More Day.”

Entertainer of the Year: Brooks & Dunn, Dixie Chicks, Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw and George Strait

Of the five nominees, only Tim McGraw has not won this award before. This year, headlining his own tour, he sold 650,000 tickets and grossed $25 million –- more than any other artist. He also released a strong, million-selling album, Set This Circus Down. Give this to McGraw.