NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Everyone's got a theory about what goes into winning the Country Music Association's entertainer of the year award.
Martina McBride thinks it should go to the artist who makes the strongest connection with fans. Jason Aldean and Kenny Chesney put an emphasis on rear ends - the ones in the seats at their concerts. Ronnie Dunn sums it up this way: "A lot of politics."
Brad Paisley, the reigning entertainer of the year, thinks it's about giving fans the most for their money.
"This is a format where we recognize entertaining, and I love it that we're not above it," Paisley said. "There is some aspect of that award that's (about) who shot the lasers over the crowd, who swung from ropes, and I think it's kind of cool that we're all sort of dancing monkeys willing to go the extra mile to entertain."
While somewhat specific, the CMA's guidelines for choosing an entertainer of the year are still open to interpretation. They read: "This award is for the act displaying the greatest competence in all aspects of the entertainment field. Voter should give consideration not only to recorded performance, but also to the in-person performance, staging, public acceptance, attitude, leadership, and overall contribution to the country music image."
Each of those elements means something different to each of the CMA's more than 6,000 voters, who determine the outcome at Wednesday night's show. With four-time winner Kenny Chesney curiously absent, it's arguably the tightest field in years, with no clear-cut leader. Previous winners Paisley, Taylor Swift and Keith Urban and first-time nominees Aldean and Blake Shelton each represent different aspects of the ideal.
We'll break it down by category for fans below and take a shot at predicting a winner.
Chesney is the undisputed king of the road in country, but Swift is second and the easy choice in this category. She earned $29.5 million in the first half of 2011 alone, nearly three times the gross of her nearest competitors not named Chesney during that period, according to Pollstar.
When Swift says she's going on a world tour, it's not just a swing through Canada. She sold out shows in 17 countries, including multiple stops in Asia and throughout Europe. Here, she performed a new cover song at each stop with ties to that city, and in major hubs, she brought out guests such as Justin Bieber and Usher. Voters likely took note when those videos went viral. Both Swift and Paisley took on stadium shows this year, and with Paisley turning every tour stop into a mini-festival this summer, he's certainly a contender here.
It's all about tickets sales and there's no question Swift is the champ among these nominees. She can fill stadiums, she can wow the Far East and her two-day stand in Nashville was a star-studded tour de force. Paisley's H2O Tour proved to be influential, however.
Swift is over the 20 million mark in total album sales and "Speak Now" has moved beyond 3.5 million in sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan. So there's little discussion here. But Aldean is selling records like no other male in country music right now, which is very important to the genre. His "My Kinda Party" has sold nearly 1.5 million copies so far.
Days before last year's CMAs, Swift's "Speak Now" album sold a million copies in its first week. I can't help but think that had something to do with the standing ovation she got after her CMA performance. Her success -and Aldean's - help the music industry in general contend that albums are still viable, and that should weigh into who voters will stand up for this year.
Voters can become blasé. Swift's numbers are nothing short of astonishing in the age of the digital thievery. But she's been doing that for a while now. Nashville is a pretty insular place and going platinum on the dime of mostly hardcore country fans gets you some attention on Music Row.
This category is something of a dead heat. All nominees have had at least two No. 1s during the qualifying period. But Shelton really put on a show with four No. 1s between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2011. Along with three No. 1 country songs, Swift also was a force overseas, notching No. 1s in a number of foreign countries. Meanwhile, Aldean put on something of a show, rapping and going toe to toe vocally with Kelly Clarkson.
When you reach this level, your songs travel up the charts in the HOV lane. However, Aldean arguably took the most risk and showed the most range with his singles this year, from the power ballad duet "Don't You Wanna Stay" with pop star Clarkson to the rap-infused "Dirt Road Anthem." For the traditionalist voters, Paisley gets major points for reuniting super group Alabama on "Old Alabama," and Swift wins approval with the bluegrass-infused "Mean."
Aldean is definitely thinking about things in a very different way, and reaping the rewards. But after a long mid-career drought without a lot of success at radio, Shelton's run has been impressive.
Paisley got the memories flowing with Alabama and Don Henley guesting on his album. Urban played a mind-melting concert in Nashville that surely got the attention of the voters. And Swift opened her final tour rehearsal to benefit tornado victims (she's donated $1 million to charities in the past year.) But it was Shelton who did the most for himself in this area, with his star turn on "The Voice."
Many people pick their entertainers like they pick their presidents: Who would I want to have a beer with? Shelton is the ultimate drinking buddy (and he's got the tweets to prove it.) His colorful personality on "The Voice" brought new fans to the genre, but perhaps his best move was marrying Miranda Lambert. The couple's much buzzed-about wedding had much of Nashville toasting to their future. Paisley and Urban, though, display a leadership quality - in disaster relief concerts, Grand Ole Opry appearances and Hall of Fame benefits- that might give them that intangible edge.
Part of the entertainer category should be about turning fans on to country music, and Swift and Shelton did that more than anyone else. Swift took the genre into the world's largest untapped market for cowboy hats in China and has exposed generation of young people to the sound of the banjo. But that could be old news to the average CMA voter. It was Shelton who had their attention this year. He was everything you'd want in a charming bad-boy ambassador.
It's a tough call, but for her creativity and the magnitude of her "Speak Now" spectacle, I'll give the prize to Swift. She continues to reinvent and re-inspire herself in her music, her style and her show, and that keeps everyone entertained.
Caitlin's probably right, and I could see the beloved Paisley repeating. But since the voters made the bold move to put two new nominees in the category, I'll choose one of them. Aldean is building the foundation for long-term success in country music - perhaps a long, lucrative, Chesney-like run with stadiums and more than one of these trophies in his future. But I think voters have become enamored with Shelton. He noted how happy finally gaining acceptance in Nashville made him at last year's show, and I think the CMA voters are going to return the love.