The race to win the Country Music Association awards-Nashville’s most coveted trophies-is as political as a small-town sheriff’s election: Billy Ray Cyrus, who has sold more than 10 million albums since 1992, isn’t even nominated because, as far as the industry’s concerned, he’s a low-class act who hasn’t paid his dues. So who will nab prizes in the major categories this year? We asked 11 Nashville insiders (see below) for their predictions, and added our own wish list. Entertainer of the Year Brooks & Dunn Garth Brooks Vince Gill Alan Jackson Reba McEntire *WILL & SHOULD WIN: Brooks. You may be tired of him, but Garth is still country’s premier showman and best ambassador. Anyone who can sell 195,000 tickets for three Dallas concerts in under six hours deserves top honors.
Single of the Year ”Ain’t That Lonely Yet,” Dwight Yoakam ”Chattahoochee,” Alan Jackson ”Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away,” Vince Gill ”I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair,” George Jones ”Two Sparrows in a Hurricane,” Tanya Tucker *WILL & SHOULD WIN: ”Chattahoochee.” The good-time feel of this charmer is irresistible. Country music has been so much about bad times and guilt that if you can make people feel good, the CMA is going to reward you.
Male Vocalist of the year John Anderson Garth Brooks Vince Gill Alan Jackson George Strait *WILL & SHOULD WIN: Gill, last year’s winner, is much beloved in Nashville, having sung and played on nearly everybody’s records for years and devoted much of his time to local charities. And nobody can touch Gill’s high, ethereal tenor, so effective on songs of overwhelming loss and pain.
Female vocalist of the year Mary-Chapin Carpenter Reba McEntire Pam Tillis Tanya Tucker Wynonna *WILL & SHOULD WIN: Wynonna-but the race will be close. Some voters will penalize her for ”going pop” on her current album, which means Carpenter or McEntire, both CMA favorites, could best her.
Vocal Group of the year Alabama Confederate Railroad Diamond Rio Restless Heart Sawyer Brown * WILL WIN: Sawyer Brown. Long the bubble-gum kings of country music, they’ve gained credibility by working with songwriter/producer Mac McAnally. *SHOULD WIN: Bubble gum still blows-Diamond Rio’s music is the real gem here.
Vocal Duo of the Year Bellamy Brothers Brooks & Dunn Darryl and Don Ellis Sweethearts of the Rodeo *WILL & SHOULD WIN: Brooks & Dunn, no contest. It must have taken all day to dig up these other graveyard acts.
Album of the Year A Lot About Livin’ (And a Little ‘Bout Love), Alan Jackson The Chase, Garth Brooks Come On Come On, Mary-Chapin Carpenter Hard Workin’ Man, Brooks & Dunn I Still Believe in You, Vince Gill *WILL WIN: Brooks & Dunn’s Hard Workin’ Man. The turbo-tonkin’ duo took home three trophies at May’s Academy of Country Music Awards, often a harbinger of CMA success. And the album, which has already sold 1.4 million copies, appears to be unstoppable, despite mixed reviews. *SHOULD WIN: Gill’s album is a masterpiece of country soul, and Carpenter’s takes country songwriting to a new level. But Jackson should win for consistent quality.