By Sarah Rodman
November 14, 2018 at 12:16 PM EST
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Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley return to host for the 11th time, Chris Stapleton leads the field with five nominations, and the slate of performers — including Keith Urban, Kacey Musgraves, and Kenny Chesney — is top-notch. Below, we have some questions (and predictions!) about the 52nd Country Music Association Awards airing Wednesday on ABC at 8 p.m. ET.

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WHERE MY LADIES AT?

There is not a single woman nominated in the Entertainer of the Year category, and only one in competition for Album of the Year (the superb Golden Hour from Kacey Musgraves), Song of the Year (Nicolle Galyon for co-writing Dan + Shay’s “Tequila”), and New Artist (Lauren Alaina). There are two in the Single of the Year but one is a feature (Miranda Lambert on Jason Aldean’s “Drowns the Whiskey”) and the other is pop star Bebe Rexha, whose monster hit “Meant to Be” with Florida Georgia Line is a whole other ball of wax. Given country radio’s regressive attitude toward playing female artists, this isn’t a huge surprise, but it remains a disappointment. If the gateway to the type of success that breeds eligibility for the top prize of Entertainer of the Year — multiple hit songs, arena and stadium tours — remains in the hands of those actively antagonistic to leveling the playing field, this will continue.

IT’S ALL IN THE DELIVERY

We can say with confidence that Brad Paisley will be unable to resist cracking wise about co-host Carrie Underwood’s pregnancy. The “Cry Pretty” singer-songwriter has two nominations — Female Vocalist and Music Video of the Year — and is performing, but we know that the chummy pair will likely have some fun with her usual frequent costume changes.

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CHRIS STAPLETON WILL SNAG MULTIPLE AWARDS

Since 2015, the year he gave his breakthrough performance on the show with Justin Timberlake, the critically acclaimed Kentucky singer-songwriter with the soulful voice — equal parts gravel and heart — has won seven CMA Awards (not to mention five Grammys and seven Academy of Country Music awards). He is nominated this year for Entertainer, Album (From a Room: Volume 2), Male Vocalist, and Single and Song of the Year (“Broken Halos”). At the very least, the prodigiously bearded troubadour is a lock for the Vocalist prize, but we’re thinking his next album might be called From a Trophy Room.

WHO WILL GIVE THIS YEAR’S BUZZ PERFORMANCE?

In 2015 it was Stapleton and Timberlake who wowed. In 2016 it was the pairing of the Dixie Chicks and Beyoncé that had people talking. Last year, in an effort to foster a sense of healing following the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting, Darius Rucker led an all-star group of friends — Lady Antebellum, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and Kelsea Ballerini, among others — in a well-meaning, if slightly befuddling, version of his former band Hootie & the Blowfish’s hit “Hold My Hand.” Of the announced performers at press time, it seems like there will be a few contenders for water-cooler moment of the night including a performance by Mavis Staples, Chris Stapleton and Maren Morris, a tribute to Ricky Skaggs that will include host Paisley and we’re counting on Musgraves and Brothers Osborne to bring sparkle and sizzle, respectively.

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“DRINKIN'” VS. “DRUNK”

It’s a battle at the bar in the New Artist of the Year contest, with the likely front-runners being the sartorially snappy Texas trio Midland (in part thanks to their hit “Drinkin’ Problem”) and Chris Janson (his well-intentioned anthem “Drunk Girl” is also in contention for Song of the Year), who’s finally enjoying a breakthrough after years of slogging it out. The spoiler here is Luke Combs, who came blazing out of the gate with four No. 1 hits off his 2017 debut, This One’s for You.

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You’re Already a Winner!

Two awards were already announced earlier Wednesday on Good Morning America, making it a truly good morning for Thomas Rhett, who snagged the prize for Music Video of the Year for “Marry Me,” and Kenny Chesney and David Lee Murphy who won Musical Event of the Year for “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” Since Chesney and Murphy are performing tonight, that should put some pep in their step!

Live stream EW’s pre-show event, PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly’s Red Carpet Live: CMA Awards, on PeopleTV before the awards ceremony begins at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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