LOS ANGELES, CALIF. — So who, you ask, will win when the 35th annual Academy of Country Music Awards are handed out at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, during a live broadcast on CBS?
If we knew, we’d tell you. We don’t know, of course, but that won’t prevent us from engaging in a little prognostication. The membership of the Hollywood-headquartered Academy of Country Music selects the winners of the “Hat” awards. Because the Academy’s membership is a little different from the membership of the Nashville-based Country Music Association, and because the two awards shows take place several months apart, winners tend to be a little different.
Vince Gill, Alan Jackson and Ricky Skaggs, for instance, never have won Entertainer of the Year honors from the ACM, though each has taken the top award from the CMA. Similar examples apply in nearly every category. That said, here’s what we think could happen Wednesday night:
Entertainer of the Year: Dixie Chicks; Faith Hill; Tim McGraw; Sawyer Brown; Shania Twain.
Who will win: McGraw. He was last year’s top male vocalist and he’s a popular presence in West Coast circles. His wife, Faith Hill, and the Dixie Chicks are still unproven as major concert headliners. Garth Brooks dominated the category in the ’90s but isn’t nominated this year. Twain is the CMA’s reigning top entertainer, but not a big ACM award winner in the past. Sawyer Brown does better on fan-voted events than in industry tallies such as this one.
Who should win: Twain. She pulled the touring numbers, proved she could sing live and pushed the country envelope, all at once.
Top Male Vocalist: Alan Jackson; Toby Keith; Tim McGraw; Collin Raye; George Strait.
Will: McGraw picks up his second consecutive victory in this category.
Should: Strait. King George still rules. Ask McGraw, who’s supporting him on Strait’s 10-date stadium tour.
Top Female Vocalist: Faith Hill; Martina McBride; Jo Dee Messina; Shania Twain; Chely Wright.
Will: Hill. Also a repeat winner, with tremendous crossover success to back up her claim to the title.
Should: McBride. She has the deepest catalog and the most impressive chops.
Top New Male Vocalist: Gary Allan; Chad Brock; Brad Paisley.
Will: Paisley, who has four nominations, extremely impressive for a newcomer.
Should: Paisley. He’s a triple threat: singer, songwriter and guitarist.
Top New Female Vocalist: Jessica Andrews; Julie Reeves; Chalee Tennison.
Will: Andrews. This is one of the strongest fields of the night, but with three hits and some touring behind her, Andrews looks seasoned compared to the competition.
Should: Andrews, though both Reeves and Tennison deserve more success than they have enjoyed so far.
Top Vocal Duo or Group: Asleep at the Wheel; Brooks & Dunn; Dixie Chicks; Lonestar; Sawyer Brown.
Will: Dixie Chicks. The girls have five nominations, two smash albums and a victory in this category last year.
Should: Chicks dominate a formidable field.
Top New Vocal Duo or Group: Montgomery Gentry; SHeDAISY; Yankee Grey.
Will: Montgomery Gentry. Eddie and Troy would appear to be neck-and-neck with SHeDAISY in this race, but the MG’s are stronger live.
Should: Montgomery Gentry.
Vocal Event of the Year (presented to artists and producer(s)): “A Country Boy Can Survive (Y2K Version),” Chad Brock with Hank Williams Jr. and George Jones; Norro Wilson and Buddy Cannon, producers. “After the Gold Rush,” Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt; George Massenburg, producer. “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You,” Alabama with ’N Sync; Don Cook and Alabama, producers. “My Kind of Woman/My Kind of Man,” Vince Gill and Patty Loveless; Tony Brown, producer. “When I Said I Do,” Clint Black with Lisa Hartman Black; Clint Black, producer.
Will: The Blacks. Nominated for a Grammy, they lost out to Harris, Parton and Ronstadt. Since The Trio is a little outside the mainstream for the country crowd, Clint and Lisa win here.
Should: Gill and Loveless, winners of the CMA’s version of this award, are the vocal heavy hitters here.
Album of the Year (presented to artist(s), producer(s) and record label): A Place in the Sun, Tim McGraw (Curb), Byron Gallimore, James Stroud and Tim McGraw, producers. Breathe, Faith Hill (Warner Bros.), Dann Huff, Byron Gallimore and Faith Hill, producers. Cold Hard Truth, George Jones (Asylum), Keith Stegall, producer. Fly, Dixie Chicks (Monument), Blake Chancey and Paul Worley, producers. Ride With Bob, Asleep at the Wheel and various artists (DreamWorks Nashville), Ray Benson, producer.
Will: Fly. The Dixie Chicks have yet to earn their stripes as live entertainment headliners, but they’ve proven already that they do quality work in the studio. Here’s betting that they’re just as popular on the West Coast as they are in Nashville.
Should: Ride With Bob represents a major accomplishment and an affirmation, after many years, that Asleep at the Wheel remains committed to country’s diverse roots.
Single Record of the Year (presented to artist(s), producer(s) and record label): “Amazed,” Lonestar (BNA), Dann Huff, producer. “He Didn’t Have to Be,” Brad Paisley (Arista Nashville), Frank Rogers, producer. “Please Remember Me,” Tim McGraw (Curb), Byron Gallimore, James Stroud and Tim McGraw, producers. “Ready to Run,” Dixie Chicks (Monument), Blake Chancey and Paul Worley, producers. “Write This Down,” George Strait (MCA Nashville), Tony Brown and George Strait, producers.
Will: “Please Remember Me.” Despite the extended, crossover success of “Amazed” and the heart-tugging sentimentality of Paisley’s entry, this comes down to a horserace between McGraw and the “Ready to Run” Chicks. McGraw’s is the more substantial of the two.
Should: “Please Remember Me” is one of the best tracks on McGraw’s best-selling album, A Place in the Sun. Give it to him.
Song of the Year (presented to artist(s), composer(s) and publisher(s)): “Amazed,” Lonestar; Marv Green, Aimee Mayo and Chris Lindsey, composers; Warner-Tamerlane, Golden Wheat Music, Careers-BMG Music, Silverkiss Music, Songs of Nashville DreamWorks. “Breathe,” Faith Hill; Holly Lamar and Stephanie Bentley, composers; Cal IV Songs, Universal-Songs of PolyGram International, Hopechest Music. “Choices,” George Jones; Mike Curtis and Billy Yates, composers; Songs of Universal, So Bizzy Music, Hillbillion Music, Boondocks Music, Makin’ Friends Music, Mack Loyd Wadkins. “He Didn’t Have to Be,” Brad Paisley; Brad Paisley and Kelley Lovelace, composers; EMI April Music, Sea Gayle Music, Love Ranch Music. “Please Remember Me,” Tim McGraw; Rodney Crowell and Will Jennings, composers; Blue Sky Rider Songs, Sony/ATV Tunes.
Will: “Amazed.” The song’s long run at the top of the charts had to impress voters. “Choices” could be the darkhorse here.
Should: “He Didn’t Have to Be,” with its portrayal of a stepson’s gratitude to his stepfather, ranks as the strongest statement of the bunch.
Country Video of the Year (presented to artist(s), producer and director): “Breathe,” Faith Hill; Anastasia Simone, producer; Lili Zanuck, director. “He Didn’t Have to Be,” Brad Paisley; Robert Deaton, producer; George Flanigen, director. “How Do You Like Me Now,” Toby Keith; Don Lepore, producer; Michael Salomon, director. “Ready to Run,” Dixie Chicks; Paul Albanese, producer; Evan Bernard, director. “Single White Female,” Chely Wright; Robert Deaton, producer; George Flanigen, director.
Will: “Ready to Run.” Star-crossed Dixie Chicks in white, with footage from a major motion picture, is a can’t-lose clip.
Should: The elegantly beguiling portrayal of Hill in “Breathe” represented a daring move for her. It deserves recognition.