First is a sensitive appreciation for an insular awards culture. (With the ACMs in May and the Country Music Association Awards in November, the country world is split into the two Hatfield and McCoy factions.)
Second is a familiarity with the vacillating buzz inside the country music industry. (The ACMs take place in Las Vegas this year, while their older country cousins, the CMAs, remain based in Nashville.)
Fortunately, The Envelope has access to people with both skill sets, pundits who are unafraied to offer their prognostications in the big categories for the ACMs.
In one corner is Chris Willman, who covers the country music scene as a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly and a longtime contributor to the Los Angeles Times. Willman recently demonstrated his mastery of the subject in his new book "Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music" (The New Press). And in the other corner is The Envelope's GoldDerby columnist Tom O'Neil, author of numerous award books, including "The Grammys" (Penguin Putnam).
ALBUM OF THE YEARNominees: "Feels Like Today," Rascal Flatts; "There's More Where That Came From," Lee Ann Womack; "Time Well Wasted," Brad Paisley; "Tough All Over," Gary Allan; "Twice the Speed of Life," Sugarland
Willman's analysis: People in the country music industry loved Womack's latest because, after flirting with pop crossover for a few years, she returned with a traditionalist album that got great reviews. It was the kind of CD that country execs actually play in their cars, and won the album prize at last November's CMA Awards.
Rascal Flatts is absolutely the hottest thing in country now, but respect is a lot longer in coming than sales. Critics have no use for them, and even in the industry, some people consider them a necessary evil--an act that's good for bringing people to the format, yet is too pop to really properly represent the genre. Maybe the ACM voters will think this is a chance to show the genre's biggest act some love and try to prove this is a less stodgy, more youth-oriented awards show than the CMAs, which essentially snubbed the band in November.
Paisley is hugely popular in country radio and Music Row circles for putting out huge hits in spite of being a traditionalist. This could be his time.
Sugarland was far and away the biggest freshman act of the year, but a lot of people are still trying to figure out whether the recent loss of one of the three founding members means the group is imploding. Is Jennifer Nettles one step away from becoming a solo act? That curiosity and uncertainty could count against them, even though they've brought fresh blood to the format.
Gary Allan's album was critically acclaimed, but because of the tragedy in his life, he just hasn't been out there selling himself the way he otherwise might, so he's the longest shot in any of the categories where he's nominated.
O'Neil's analysis: Yeah, yeah, yeah, Womack is today's darlin' of the country music biz, but the industry is still a Good Ole Boy network. It's rare that female solo acts win this prize. Heck, look at the winners over the past five years: Keith Urban, Alan Jackson and Toby Keith (TWICE). The fifth winner was the ensemble album "O Brother Where Art Thou."
Paisley finally hit his peak this past year. His tunes flood the radio. His videos are faves on CMT because they're so bouncy and fun, with well-crafted tunes full of mischief, genuine romantic ache (rare tenderness from a crooning cowboy) and even a sexy wink now and then. And, heck, he's now so establishment now, he hangs with Dolly!
Willman's pick: Womack, but just barely.
O'Neil's pick: Paisley. Personally, I'm rooting for Sugarland to win everything, but I know it ain't gonna happen.
SINGLE RECORD OF THE YEARNominees: "Alcohol," Brad Paisley; "Baby Girl," Sugarland; "Believe," Brooks & Dunn; "Best I Ever Had," Gary Allan; "Jesus Take the Wheel," Carrie Underwood
Willman's analysis: Country awards voters are famously reluctant to give trophies to first-timers, because here more than in any other genre, there's a feeling that you have to earn it. But that applies more to the CMAs than the ACMs, which are more open to newcomers.
I just don't see how Underwood can miss here, newbie or not. Even if you find the lyric hokey, "Jesus Take the Wheel" has the year's most heavenly hook, and she sings the hell out of it.
As spiritually themed ballads go, "Believe" is even stronger and more moving, but Brooks & Dunn's song wasn't as ubiquitous as Underwood's. Brad's "Alcohol" was huge, but it's difficult to see this award going to a comic novelty song, even if it's the biggest novelty song in recent memory. Voters could to toss Sugarland a bone here, but if they go for a freshman act, it's almost certainly going to be the mammoth Underwood, not the merely huge Sugarland.
O'Neil's analysis: Sorry, Chris. I just don't buy your Underwood spin. Look how hard it was for the ex-American Idol to be accepted by country radio despite megasales in CD stores. I just can't see the industry insiders taking her seriously enough yet in this top race. Brooks & Dunn won't win here because they dominate other categories. This is a matchup between Sugarland's "Baby Girl" — the best country power ballad since Jessica Andrews' "Who I Am" and an even better song — and "Alcohol." Sure, the latter is a frothy mix, but these voters are a notoriously thirsty gang and, as they'll drink anything.
Willman's pick: Underwood.
O'Neil's pick: Paisley.
ENTERTAINER OF THE YEARNominees: Brooks & Dunn; Kenny Chesney; Toby Keith; Rascal Flatts; Keith Urban
Willman's analysis: At this time last year, Chesney was on top of the world. He'd just married Renee Zellweger, and the press room was a circus, with everyone wondering if she was there with him. (He demurred and said she was off promoting a movie, but they were together at the after-party.) Folks are still wondering if his image took a hit after the quickie marriage and quickie divorce this last year. The fact that Chesney's album wasn't nominated for album of the year may also indicate a loss here.
Meanwhile, there's no bloom off Urban's rose, and there probably won't be unless he and Nicole delight the tabloids and upset country fans with some weird tabloid-magnet breakup. Most of all, Urban really does personify the all-around entertainer, which suggests the mastery of multiple show-biz tasks. He's an amazing guitarist as well as talented singer/songwriter, and when you factor in the looks, there are a lot of different handles for pop and country fans to grab onto, whereas the potential appeal of the other nominees is inherently a bit more limited. "Entertainer of the year" is also a synonym for "country's diplomat to the wider world," and Urban is certainly that.
O'Neil's analysis: Too bad Keith only announced his engagement to Nicole Kidman after voters' ballots were all mailed in. If Chris is right and Kenny's marriage to a movie star played a role in his winning last year, imminent wedding bells would've helped Keith, too. If he needed it. But he doesn't.
Willman's pick: It's Urban, in the battle of the heartthrobs.
O'Neil's pick: Urban. (Chris finally got one category right and argued the case well. 'Nuff said).
TOP MALE VOCALISTNominees: Dierks Bentley; Kenny Chesney; Brad Paisley; George Strait; Keith Urban.
Willman's pick: Urban. He won it last year, even though the "entertainer of the year" prize went to Chesney. This year, he'll certainly win male vocalist again and, I believe, take the bigger belt away from Kenny as well.
O'Neil's pick: Urban. Chris is starting to see things right. Did he run out of moonshine? Oh, that's right. He doesn't endorse "Alcohol."
TOP FEMALE VOCALISTNominees: Sara Evans; Martina McBride; Carrie Underwood; Gretchen Wilson; Lee Ann Womack.
Willman's pick: Underwood. A strong pack, four of whom made fairly substantial albums this past year. I think it'll go to the one who didn't, Underwood. She will be the belle of the ball at the ACMs. The album wasn't great, but it sold like hotcakes, on the strength of that undeniable single. She's lovely and charming and inoffensive and has the pipes to beat the band.
It'd be nice to see it go to Womack or McBride, who both made really wonderful, traditionalist albums this year. But their feats may be similar enough that they'll split the voters who are inclined toward that kind of old-school class. Evans makes some of the most appealing records in the genre, though her latest album didn't quite live up to its predecessor. Wilson won this award last year, but her sophomore album was a bit of a letdown, so the ACMs will probably feel it's already time to reward another newcomer.
O'Neil's pick: Womack. Chris is right about Womack taking a top ACM, but this is the one she'll nab.
TOP VOCAL GROUPNominees: Alabama; Little Big Town; Lonestar; Rascal Flatts; Sugarland.
Willman's pick: Rascal Flatts. It's Rascal Flatts' award to lose, and if they can't win this one, you'll know there's some real resentment there over their pop look and sound. Sugarland would seem to be the only other contender here, but never underestimate the nostalgic (and inexplicable) love for Alabama.
O'Neil's pick: Sugarland. Rascal Flatts has won this for the past three years and is likely to prevail again, but here's where I'm gonna scoot out onto my Sugarland limb. Surely, the best country group of the year must win something, especially since the gang's busted up and we'll never get that sugar high again.
VIDEO OF THE YEARNominees: "As Good As I Once Was," Toby Keith; "Believe," Brooks & Dunn; "I May Hate Myself In The Morning," Lee Ann Womack; "Kerosene," Miranda Lambert; "When I Get Where I'm Going," Brad Paisley and Dolly Parton.
Willman's pick: Paisley/Parton. I see dead people — or at least Paisley and Parton's paean to the afterlife — as a big sentimental winner. But Keith could carve out his one win of the night here, if voters for pure comedy over the cosmos.
O'Neil's pick: Paisley/Parton. If ACM voters choose anything else, I'm taking it personally and sending them all into the afterlife.