Wondering who'll triumph when the Academy of Country Music Awards are bestowed on Sunday (8 p.m. ET/ PT, CBS)? You'd be smart to heed the predix of Chris Willman. Chris has not only written professionally about the music biz for Entertainment Weekly, the L.A. Times and other leading media, but he feels special kinship with country tunes. Check out his book "Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music" (New Press, 2007).
As a longtime pal to Gold Derby, Chris has written up his predix exclusively for you! I hope this doesn't smack of ingratitude, but I dare to challenge one of his forecasts, while admitting that the odds probably favor his view. Considering how Carrie Underwood keeps romping through the category for best female vocalist, she may seem likely to do so again, but I'm betting my ranch (if I had one, but I don't) on Taylor Swift. Yeah, yeah, Taylor Swift may be considered too young (she's 19) and new to the scene for such a lofty embrace from the industry establishment, but I think she's wowed us all with her serious chops (singer, musician, songwriter), sales, beauty and charm. And I mean WOW! But now let's pass off to what Chris thinks . . . .(Here is a full list of nominees per category to consult while reading.)
Imagine if "Slumdog Millionaire" won best picture… and then nothing else, or maybe one technical award. Impossible, right? Yet that's what we're faced with at the country awards shows every year. At the ACMs Sunday night, Kenny Chesney is a shoo-in to win entertainer of the year, the top prize. This will mark the fifth consecutive time he's picked it up. (He's also gotten that top honor at the competing CMA Awards four out of the last five years.) But it seems entirely possible that that's the only trophy he'll bring home this year. Chesney can't lose entertainer of the year, but he almost can't win anything else.
Last year, Chesney had 11 ACM nominations, but only walked away with two awards — one, of course, for entertainer of the year; the other was a shared award for vocal event of the year, for a song on which he had a cameo. This year, he only pulled in three nominations, for entertainer, male vocalist and vocal event. I don't think he has as good a shot at winning vocal event this year as last: His partnership with Mac McAnally on "Down the Road" seems destined to lose to "Start a Band," the Brad Paisley / Keith Urban collaboration. And Chesney is really the underdog in the male vocalist race, where he's lost to Paisley the last two years.
How is it that Chesney can win the top prize every year but lose the lesser male vocalist prize to Paisley every year? That may be a mystery, but it's not an unfathomable one. I think Paisley's sense of humor, songwriting and guitar chops, faithfulness to traditional country sounds, and, yes, even vocal ability make him a favorite in the industry. But as Chesney himself has said in award show press rooms, the entertainer of the year belt really goes to the person who is considered the biggest ambassador for country music in the wider world, pulling in the huge tour numbers and getting the most media attention. And that continues to be Chesney. No offense to Chesney, but voters tend to pick male vocalist on artistry and entertainer of the year on sheer numbers and mass-market palatability.
(It doesn't hurt that, controversially, entertainer of the year is now "fan-voted." Chesney complained about this backstage last year, because he thinks it should remain an industry-voted award. But will there be any backlash from fans over his churlishness about it in 2008? Nah. And he'd still get it either way, whether it was fans or the industry doing the balloting.)
I think Paisley is going to have a bigger year at the ACMs than he ever has before. The show gives out so few awards, it's hard to talk about a sweep; last year, nobody got more than two. But this year, I think Paisley stands a very real shot at winning five out of his leading six nominations: not just male vocalist but also single, song, and video (all for "Waitin' on a Woman"), and of course vocal event for his duet with Urban. Only the biggest prize remains out of his grasp. And that's in a year when Paisley isn't even up for best album, since his mostly instrumental CD didn't make that cut.
Carrie Underwood will get female vocalist, of course, again. I'd like to see Taylor Swift sneak in there, and certainly Taylor's an even bigger star right now—pretty much the only woman in any form of music who is bigger than Carrie at the moment. But voters will finally think about the "vocal" part of "top female vocalist" and decide to give it to the gal with the serious chops. In a world where all was fair in love and war, we might be talking about Carrie and Taylor duking it out for entertainer of the year. But that's not going to happen any time soon, in such a boys' club (and newbie-phobic club).
Biggest shutout of the night: Heidi Newfield, who somehow managed to get the second highest number of nominations, five, despite not having any truly massive hits or even wild critical acclaim. Surely Newfield knows she'll be going home empty-handed and is happy just for the nomination aberration.
Photos: Associated Press, Getty Images