Wow. What a year it's been for country music. 2023 has seen virtually all the genre's most lustrous stars dropping albums, the upper echelon of artists have embarked on blockbuster, international tours and - perhaps most excitingly of all - some of the most streamed tracks of the year, across all genres, have been country songs.
While Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen have locked horns at the top of the charts for much of 2023, we've also seen Zach Bryan consolidate his status among the genre's elite with his first ever Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard 200 No. 1s.
Lainey Wilson has continued her meteoric ascent to become a titan of modern country music, with the ‘Watermelon Moonshine’ singer-songwriter heading into November's CMA Awards 2023 ceremony as the most-nominated artist with a record-breaking nine nods.
The fact that 2023 has been such a momentous year for country music makes the impending awards season all the most fascinating. As the only country ceremony this side of the New Year, the CMA Awards is a huge opportunity for artists to build up a head of steam as they build their plans for 2024, as well as providing an early chance to assess who the biggest successes of 2023 have been so far.
By the same token, the CMA Awards’ unique positioning in the country music calendar also makes it more susceptible to controversies, shocks and surprise victories.
With this in mind, we've thrown some key statistics, data and a healthy dose of emotion into the Holler melting pot, in order to judge who we think will win and - crucially - who we think should win.
At the end of the day, we get incredibly excited - perhaps a little too excited - whenever the leading lights of country music are being celebrated and championed, especially following such a thrilling year for the genre. Therefore, even if we didn't opt for your favourite artist, we'll still be overjoyed if they triumph on November 8, because every name on the nominations list is undoubtedly worthy of recognition.
Additionally, we've included an ‘Upset Rating’ for each category, which gives it a score out of 10 for how likely it is to produce one of those aforementioned controversies, shocks or surprises...
We start with the most coveted award of the evening - Entertainer of the Year. Lainey Wilson is a first-time nominee in this category, but many commentators would choose her as their leading candidate for the trophy, given the spectacular year she's had.
However, with Lainey Wilson still spending the majority of 2023 as a supporting act for the likes of Luke Combs, Morgan Wallen and HARDY, we're not sure this will be her year - but we certainly won't be complaining if she proves us wrong. Come 2024, though, and Lainey will most likely be the unanimous favourite for this gong.
Although Carrie Underwood and Chris Stapleton are two veterans of the genre that command gigantic fanbases, they haven't made as big a splash during the 2023 CMA eligibility window (July 1, 2022 to June 30, 2023) as the other names on this list.
Without a doubt, the most dominant country artists of 2023 have been Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs, and we feel the two megastars are in pole position heading into the CMA ceremony.
Looking at chart successes, Morgan Wallen is the undeniable victor, but when considering touring and the scale of his influence, Luke Combs takes the top spot, with Luke bringing his colossal run of shows to Australia, New Zealand, Europe and beyond.
This year's CMA Entertainer of the Year category almost feels too close to call - another testament to the strength of country music in 2023 - but we think Luke Combs will win by a whisker.
Although the CMA voters don't always stick too strictly to this distinction, the Single of the Year accolade was originally intended to honour the most successful release of the year, while the Song of the Year award is given to the track that is deemed the best artistically.
On this basis, then, out of these candidates it's hard to argue against Luke Combs’ ‘Fast Car’, which has raced away to become one of the North Carolina native's biggest hits to date. Luke's Tracy Chapman cover has spent much of 2023 in the Top Ten of the Billboard Hot 100, but has been repeatedly blocked from the No. 1 spot by Morgan Wallen's ‘Last Night’, which is a bizarre omission from the nominations list.
Album of the Year is a multi-layered category to consider.
While we wish it was as simple as just picking the record with the most bangers – which would likely find Morgan Wallen's expansive 36-song One Thing At A Time taking the gong simply based on size – the winner is determined by more than that.
Rather, the projects are judged by performance, musical background, engineering, packaging, design, art, layout and liner notes. This year's category sees several big hitters in contention, although genre-bender HARDY's dichotomous country-rock record, the mockingbird & THE CROW, which kicked off 2023 with a bang, was glaringly left out of the running.
One of the standout hopefuls is most-nominated Lainey Wilson's Bell Bottom Country. Marking her sophomore effort, the record arrived in October 2022 and has, so far, produced two bonafide hit singles for the young entertainer with plenty of radio-ready tunes on standby. In short, Bell Bottom Country has been a career-defining album for Lainey.
However, since this is an industry-voted ceremony, our eyes are firmly set on Ashley McBryde's Lindeville taking home the trophy.
Released in September 2022, this concept record wasn't necessarily a commercial success and it never technically rendered a radio single. Nonetheless, crafted with a collective of frequent collaborators and fellow artists, McBryde's ensemble album made waves within the industry upon its release, ranking on several end of year lists and lauded among critics far and wide.
‘Fast Car‘ has a great shot at winning this one, given the immensely successful year it's enjoyed. However, given the fact that Song of the Year is meant to honour the best constructed song, we don't think the panel of voters will go for a cover.
For us, Jordan Davis’ ‘Next Thing You Know’ deserves this one, because of its emotional intricacy and lyrical depth, with Davis deftly taking the listener through an entire life-span in the space of three minutes. This would be Jordan Davis’ second win in a row in this category, after deservedly taking home the 2022 Song of the Year gong for ‘Buy Dirt’.
However, HARDY has to win at least one award for his masterful storytelling, with the Mississippi maverick widely considered one of the leading songwriters in modern country. His Lainey Wilson duet, ‘wait in the truck’, has been triumphant at virtually all the preceding 2023 awards shows, and our gut says this will win out again on November 8.
Country music's leading ladies have had quite an impressive year in 2023.
While this year's crop of nominees includes stalwarts like Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, who have both enjoyed several Female Vocalist of the Year honors over the last two decades, neither of them have done much in the way of new music during the 2023 eligibility period. With that in mind, it's hard to see how either of them would take home the trophy.
Similarly, apart from a few singles, Carly Pearce hasn't provided much in terms of new material in the last year, making her a tough sell to be crowned winner.
While a strong argument can be made for industry darling and Holler's favorite badass, Ashley McBryde, the odds seem to be in Lainey Wilson's favor.
As the reigning Female Vocalist of the Year, our Louisiana girl has enjoyed another stellar year full of history making hits, including three No. 1s (so far) with another on the way thanks to Jelly Roll's 'Save Me'.
One name that should arguably be among these candidates is Zach Bryan, with the ‘I Remember Everything’ songsmith emerging as one of the most influential and popular artists in the genre today.
After dominating the country and all-genre charts for the vast majority of the year, setting a plethora of new records in the process, we don't see how this can go to anyone except Morgan Wallen.
Having said this, Morgan hasn't traditionally enjoyed too much success at the CMA Awards, and Luke Combs and Chris Stapleton will be waiting in the wings as dark horses for this accolade.
This is always a tricky one, and an argument could be made for 49 Winchester to be included, especially now the CMA have scrapped the New Group of the Year award.
With many of these candidates having had relatively quiet years, we think Old Dominion are in prime position to extend their impressive streak. Some fans have grumbled over the band's seemingly interminable run of victories, but this year, it's hard to justify any of the other acts obstructing Old Dominion's path to a staggering six-year reign.
We think Dan + Shay, given the fanfare and acclaim that greeted their new album, Bigger Houses, will edge it - and in their acceptance speech, keep an eye out for Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney making an impassioned reference to the fact the duo nearly split up in 2021.
We were glad to see The War and Treaty recognised in this year's list of nominees in honour of their soul-stirring record, Lover's Game, and given the fact that both Dan + Shay and Brothers Osborne's new albums fall outside the 2023 CMA eligibility window, we think The War and Treaty have more than earned this award.
The Musical Event of the Year category can be a bit confusing, so for the sake of clarity, it is defined as "a collaboration of two or more people either or all of whom are known primarily as a country artist".
In recent years, country music fans have been blessed with several stellar collaborations and duets within the format, and the same remains true for 2023.
In fact, several honorable mentions were seemingly left out of the running for this year's nominees, including Thomas Rhett & Riley Green's 'Half of Me', Ian Munsick & Cody Johnson's 'Long Live Cowgirls' and Luke Combs & Miranda Lambert's 'Outrunnin' Your Memory', to name a few.
As far as this year's contenders go, the reigning winner of the category, Carly Pearce, is up alongside Chris Stapleton for their 'We Don't Fight Anymore' duet. However, compared to the rest of the nominees, this specific song feels too new to be crowned winner. Conversely, Cole Swindell and Jo Dee Messina's 'She Had Me At Heads Carolina' feels entirely too old to be considered.
While Kane and Katelyn Brown's heartfelt duet, 'Thank God', is deserving of the nomination, our vote lies with HARDY & Lainey Wilson's No. 1 chart-topper, 'wait in the truck', which has already racked up several awards this year, including the equivalent category at the 2023 ACM Awards.
Though not a huge commercially promoted category, both the CMA and ACM Awards always make sure to honor the musicians that make our favorite songs and albums come to life.
As it was back in the early days of country music with the legendary A Team, there's a tight knit group of studio musicians in Nashville who are present on the majority of the recordings that come out of Music City. This also means that it's usually the same crop of talented creators who find themselves nominated in this category year after year.
Holler favorite Charlie Worsham is up for the honor for his always impressive guitar slinging skills. Within the voting period, you can hear his work on Lainey Wilson's Bell Bottom Country, Dierks Bentley's Gravel & Gold, Luke Combs' Growin' Up and Gettin' Old, Elle King's Come Get Your Wife and more.
However, renowned fiddler Jenee Fleenor is the frontrunner for 2023.
As the reigning Musician of the Year four times over, Fleenor has enjoyed another immensely successful year in the studio with cuts for Luke Bryan, Kelsea Ballerini, Carly Pearce, Colbie Caillat, Elle King, Warren Zeiders, Tyler Hubbard and several others.
Awarded to the artist(s) and director(s), the winner of Music Video of the Year is judged on several elements, including the artist’s performance, video concept and production.
In the past few years, the winners in this category have largely been for songs and videos with evocative, moving storytelling, which looks to be the case for this year's nominees, too.
Among this year's nominees is Ashley McBryde's phenomenally shot, one-take video for 'Light On In The Kitchen', which is one of the frontrunners for the gong.
However, our money is on the man who has truly turned country music on its head in the last year or two: Jelly Roll.
Directed by Patrick Tohill, the music video for Jelly Roll's blockbuster sophomore single, 'Need A Favor', marks one of five nominations for the first-time CMA nominee - and we feel pretty good about Jelly's chances of pulling off this win.
The New Artist of the Year category has the potential to be one of the most unpredictable and volatile awards of the evening, with every single nominee seemingly in with a shot at glory.
During the 2023 CMA eligibility window, Bailey Zimmerman notched three No. 1 singles at Country Radio - more than any candidate in the New Artist of the Year contingent - which makes it very strange not to see the ‘Fall in Love’ hitmaker up for this one. Nate Smith is another prodigy that many thought should've received a nod.
Out of the nominees, Zach Bryan is unquestionably the biggest name, with his megastar status now making it seem a little peculiar to still see him considered a ‘New Artist’. However, Zach's not-so-subtle criticisms of the CMA Awards last year won't have gone unnoticed, and we think he'll walk away from this category empty-handed.
Megan Moroney has been one of the most exciting new voices in country music over the past twelve months, with her witty, football-themed anthem, ‘Tennessee Orange’, cementing itself as one of the undisputed songs of the year.
With Megan Moroney's 2023 album, Lucky, a certified Holler Album of the Year candidate, we're certain the Georgia up-and-comer is set to become one of the biggest stars of the genre in the next couple of years, making her a worthy New Artist of the Year Award recipient.
After taking home a clean sweep at the 2023 CMT Awards, Jelly Roll is another formidable contender, as is Hailey Whitters, but we think the CMA voters will give this one to Parker, with the Texan having now graduated to headliner status at a slew of 2024 festivals.
For more on the CMA Awards 2023, see below: