Country Universe Staff: 2008 CMA Personal Picks

As we gear up for tomorrow night’s CMA Awards Show, the staff of Country Universe share our personal picks in all categories.   Check back tomorrow for our predictions in each category.  Our third annual Live Blog will commence at the beginning of the show.


  • Kenny Chesney- Blake
  • Brad Paisley – Leeann, Lynn
  • George Strait
  • Sugarland – Kevin, Dan
  • Keith Urban

Kevin: The only act in the running this year who has shown artistic, commercial and live performance growth is Sugarland, and they’ve grown by leaps and bounds.  In a race with four other acts who have long since settled into their styles, they’re the only ones who are still charting new territory.

Leeann: While Paisley may not use explosions or other fancy tricks to entertain his crowds, much like Vince Gill, he keeps them mesmerized with his comedy, graphic creations, incredible guitar prowess and a catalog of engaging songs – in other words, natural talent.

Blake: Kenny Chesney is the most significant touring act in country music and a genre-crossing ambassador for both fans and fly-by-night followers.

Dan: They can’t claim Chesney’s utter domination of the road, but Sugarland have been consistent sellers in a time where the very idea of selling well feels antiquated. They’re probably the best mainstream ambassadors for the genre right now, too, with musical output that challenges commercial conventions (see “Stay”), at least sort of acknowledges country music’s traditions (again, see “Stay”), and draws creatively from other genres (see the Beyoncé duet, the high-profile covers of Dream Academy and Matt Nathanson, the mish-mashy new album).

Lynn: With natural talent, charm, good humor, humility, skills and grace, Paisley is my pick for Entertainer of the Year.  He’s an asset to the genre, and manages to keep one foot in traditional country even as he branches out.  Although he’s not as big of a touring act as Chesney, he’s still a huge draw, and despite all the gimmicks and gadgets in his concert, true to the genre, he keeps the music at the heart of his show.

Male Vocalist

  • Kenny Chesney
  • Alan Jackson – Leeann
  • Brad Paisley – Blake
  • George Strait – Kevin, Dan, Lynn
  • Keith Urban
Leeann: With Paisley as my close second choice, Jackson has the clear, smooth voice that ultimately gets my vote.  Like the man, his voice is simple but it is able to expertly capture each emotion that is needed for each song that he sings.  Moreover, every note that he sings comes with incredible ease.

His attempts at humor miss the mark occasionally, and his vocal range compares little to the great voices of the genre, but Paisley, with his tremendous guitar playing and stellar songwriting executes well enough to win a second consecutive Male Vocalist honor.

They all kind of put me to sleep this year, but George did it with the strongest set of songs. Paisley will probably repeat, but I say “Strait ’08.”
Lynn: This is a tough category for me this year. I’m a fan of Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley and George Strait, but none of them really impressed me with their musical output. I’m going with Strait for keeping it country.
Kevin: All of these men have been repeatedly honored by the CMA.  Collectively, they have 54 awards and 240 nominations to date.  It’s been a decade since Strait took this one home, and he’s put out better music this year than both Jackson and Urban, the only other vocalists here that are in his league.

Female Vocalist

  • Alison Krauss
  • Miranda Lambert – Kevin, Leeann, Blake (tie), Dan, Lynn
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood – Blake (tie)
Blake: Underwood’s powerful pipes and positive contribution to the image of the genre deserve props.  Likewise to Lambert’s intelligent songwriting, fearless stage attitude and feisty vocal firepower.

We’re all pretty big fans of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend here, so…yeah.

Except for Swift, vocally this category is a toss-up, and could be decided solely on personal preference. However, if one considers the strength of material as well, this award goes to Miranda Lambert, hands down.

Alison Krauss and Carrie Underwood are both worthy of the honor, but Miranda Lambert deserves it the most. She made the best music.
Leeann: Miranda has proven that she can sing a rocker with the necessary grit and energy to appropriate drive her up-tempo songs, but she has also demonstrated a lesser known ability to be able to sing with vulnerability and sensitivity when called upon to do so.  Out of the female singers on this list, Lambert has the most interesting voice.

Vocal Duo

  • Big & Rich
  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Sugarland – Kevin, Leeann, Blake, Dan
  • The Wreckers

Dan: Montgomery Gentry gets an honorable mention from me for their stronger-than-usual year of singles, but Sugarland still takes it.

Lynn: Abstain. If The Wreckers came out with their last (and only) album this year, they’d have my vote. Sugarland has yet to win me over.

Kevin: The biggest duo is also the best.  Sugarland all the way.

Leeann: While I love the harmony of Big & Rich, Sugarland gets my vote this year.  There’s no denying their incredible success and talent, even if they haven’t exactly won me over yet.  Like Lynn, if the Wreckers had stuck around, I would probably have chosen them.  However, like Blake, I would love to have a chance to root for Joey + Rory next year.

Blake: Sugarland’s risk-taking third album, a rise in mainstream profile and the roof-raising voice of Jennifer Nettles make this an easy call.

Vocal Group

  • Eagles
  • Emerson Drive
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town – Kevin, Leeann, Blake, Dan, Lynn
  • Rascal Flatts

Lynn: Little Big Town wins this one by default. I’m not quite a convert yet, but they are undoubtedly talented, with gorgeous harmonies, and in a just world, would have Rascal Flatts’ success.

Usually I can root for the Dixie Chicks or Alison Krauss & Union Station.  Since they’re not here, Little Big Town is as good as it gets.

As I always say about Little Big Town, they actually sound like a vocal group.  They work together to create their tight and engaging harmonies, which is what I feel the definition of a vocal group should be.
They sound even better live than on record.

Warm, engaging harmonies and sharp songwriting make Little Big Town one of Music Row’s strongest critical favorites.

Lady A is still too new to have really earned this one, Rascal Flatts hit an all-time low for musical output this year, and Eagles/Emerson haven’t made a lot of recent waves in American mainstream country. Little Big Town’s been too busy with the Capitol transition to get a whole lot done commercially this year, but I still like them and their current album. So there’s my vote.

New Artist

  • Jason Aldean – Kevin
  • Rodney Atkins
  • Lady Antebellum
  • James Otto – Leeann, Blake, Dan, Lynn
  • Kellie Pickler

Kevin: Aldean’s the only one in the group to maintain his breakthrough with a sophomore success, so he gets the edge in an underwhelming lineup.

Leeann: Otto has the strongest  voice and best album of the nominees in this category, though I’m underwhelmed by the choices in general.

Blake: Compared to past years, this category is incredibly weak.  Among these choices, Otto’s soulful vocal stylings give him the slight edge over the field.

Dan: Not the most inspiring lineup, but Otto is an interesting talent. I think he may have the least chance of actually winning, though.

Lynn: I paused to listen more than once when Otto came on the radio this past year. His voice is unique and interesting, and I look forward to hearing more from him. That’s more than I can say for the rest of this group.


  • Brooks & Dunn, Cowboy Town
  • Kenny Chesney, Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates
  • Alan Jackson, Good Time – Leeann, Blake
  • George Strait, Troubadour – Dan, Lynn
  • Carrie Underwood, Carnival Ride – Kevin

Leeann: I think this is the weakest category this year.  None of the albums seem like especially good choices to me, but with what I have to work with, I think Jackson’s is probably the most solid album of the bunch.  It’s pretty consistent with what he’s done for the last 19 years, though still weak in more spots than I’d like.  He independently wrote all 17 songs on the album, which is  admittedly impressive.

Blake: The quality of Jackson’s self-written album is uneven, but a few transcendent moments raise it above the competition.

Dan: Lackluster albums across the board. Just give it to Strait again, whatever.

Lynn: Again, I’m going to have to give it to Strait for keeping it country. Jackson’s album had its bright spots, but overall it was a disappointment.

Kevin: Carrie Underwood’s album has the fewest disposable tracks in a largely disposable category.


  • “Don’t Blink” – Kenny Chesney
  • “Gunpowder & Lead” – Miranda Lambert – Leeann, Blake, Lynn
  • “I Saw God Today” – George Strait
  • “Stay” – Sugarland – Kevin, Dan
  • “You’re Gonna Miss This” – Trace Adkins

Blake: Admittedly the least traditional of the nominees, “Gunpowder” packs a punch, both lyrically and sonically.  Lambert’s smart-as-a-whip lyric and gritty vocal, combined with the ominous production (the spare guitar strumming in the verses quickly bursts into a rousing chorus) of Frank Liddell and Mike Wrucke, make this domestic abuse drama both intelligently written and highly entertaining.

Dan: “Stay.” A potent reminder that the riskiest singles are often the most rewarding.

Lynn: “Gunpowder & Lead.” Lambert experienced breakthrough success with one of her least commercial singles, and her tough, smart lyrics and gutsy balls-out performance deserves recognition.

Kevin: It’s a close call between Miranda Lambert’s breakthrough hit and Sugarland’s contemporary classic, with the latter getting the edge.

Leeann: “Stay” is a close second for me, but “Gunpowder & Lead” is the most interesting.  The melodic structure and intriguing production are creative.


  • “Good Time” – Alan Jackson
  • “I Saw God Today” – Rodney Clawson/Monty Criswell/Wade Kirby
  • “Letter to Me” – Brad Paisley
  • “Stay” – Jennifer Nettles – Kevin, Leeann, Blake, Dan, Lynn
  • “You’re Gonna Miss This” – Ashley Gorley/Lee Thomas Miller

Dan: I don’t think it was the absolute best composition released this past year, but “Stay” easily trumps the competition in this category.

Lynn: I give in. “Stay” will win.

Kevin: “Stay” is the only truly great song in a batch of very good ones and “Good Time.”

Leeann: It’s emotional and understated and deserves the award.

Blake: Nettles narrates the story of the other woman in a sympathetic way without denying the moral crimes she’s committed.

Musical Event

  • “Another Try” – Josh Turner featuring Trisha Yearwood – Leeann, Blake, Lynn
  • “Every Other Weekend” – Reba McEntire & Kenny Chesney – Kevin, Dan
  • “Gone, Gone, Gone” – Alison Krauss & Robert Plant
  • “Life In A Northern Town” – Sugarland featuring Little Big Town & Jake Owen
  • “Shiftwork” – Kenny Chesney (duet with George Strait)

Lynn: Two of my favorite country voices blended together singing a country song. What’s better than that?

Kevin: “Every Other Weekend” is a powerful divorce song that brought out the best in both singers.  A win here would be McEntire’s first CMA trophy since 1994, when she won in this category for “Does He Love You”, her classic duet with Linda Davis.

Leeann: I just love everything about this song–the blend of the voices, the production and the emotion.  After all this time, I still stop and listen when I have a chance to hear it.

Blake: The rich blend of Turner and Yearwood, two of country’s purest singers, is most worthy of the award.

Dan: It’s a tough call for me here, but I’ve got to show some love to “Every Other Weekend.” Chesney wouldn’t have been my pick for the male part, but a great song is a great song. I actually love everything here besides “Shiftwork,” though, so I’m pretty flexible.

Music Video

  • “Don’t Blink” – Kenny Chesney
  • “Good Time” – Alan Jackson
  • “Stay” – Sugarland – Kevin
  • “Waitin’ on a Woman” – Brad Paisley w/ Andy Griffith – Leeann, Blake, Dan, Lynn
  • “You’re Gonna Miss This” – Trace Adkins

Kevin: “Stay” was the most effective close-up video since Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”  I like the Paisley clip, but it doesn’t have the raw emotional impact of Sugarland’s.

Leeann: Two words. Andy Griffith!

Blake: Voters will be unable to resist the cameo appearance of living legend Griffith and the perfectly poignant clip for an equally engaging ballad.  It deserves the win.

Dan: Paisley (or his character) comes off like a bit of a jerk at the beginning of his clip, and I’ve never been sure whether that was intentional or not. But Andy Griffith is magic in a very delicate role (filling in the ends of song lines without sounding stupid? I certainly couldn’t do it), and the twist at the end is beautifully built throughout. “Waitin’ on a Woman” ftw.

Lynn: I believe that music videos should give the viewer something above and beyond the song. Paisley understands and has mastered this approach. In “Waitin’ on a Woman,” he adds his trademark humor, which contrasts perfectly with the sweet poignancy of the song, and breathes life into a video that is greater than the song itself.


  • Jerry Douglas
  • Paul Franklin – Kevin, Leeann, Blake, Dan, Lynn
  • Dann Huff
  • Brent Mason
  • Mac McAnally

Leeann: While I’m a sucker for Dobro, I’m an even bigger sucker for Steel guitar and Franklin deserves to finally win this award.  C’mon, it’s country music!

Blake: The most competitive category, to be expected in a town built on mastermind musicians. The winless Franklin deserves a trophy.

Dan: Ditto everyone else’s remarks. Mason and Huff are omnipresent, but have gotten a little more of their due. I’ll admit I’m no expert here, though.

Lynn: I’m not familiar with all of the artists nominated in this category, but anyone with fifteen failed nominations deserves the award. (After reviewing Franklin’s bio, I have to ask: Is there a country CD he hasn’t played on in the past few decades? Impressive.)

Kevin: Paul Franklin’s steel guitar playing is legendary, and after fifteen failed nominations since 1989, he’s long overdue. Hopefully, sixteen will be the charm!


  1. I wish Rascal Flatts would lose, but sadly it just won’t happen.

    I also agree that the album category is pathetic. The fact that Trisha Yearwood didn’t get nominated for album (it was eligible, right?) or Female vocalist? It’s a crime. She deserves to win both.

    Also, if Sugarland doesn’t win the duo award, something is terribly wrong.

  2. I agree, Dan. My respect for the CMAs was initially dampened by the snub of the HOF inductees and this year’s nominations haven’t exactly heightened my enthusiasm. I remember when I used to be unshakably excited by the impending CMA Awards show each year.

  3. I should say that I am looking forward to the live blog tomorrow and Brad and Carrie’s co-hosting duties. So, all is not lost.

  4. Count me among those who are less than enthused about this year’s CMA awards: From the more-of-the-same-despite-great-alternatives approach to the nominees to the exclusion of the Hall of Fame inductees (having learned nothing from last year) to some head-scratching choices of performers, it’s hard to think of this as “appointment” viewing.

    I tend to agree with the consensus in terms of personal preferences for winners:

    Entertainer: Paisley.
    Male Vocalist: Paisley.
    Female Vocalist: Lambert.
    Vocal Group: Little Big Town.
    Vocal Duo: Sugarland.
    Hori… New Artist: Abstain. Pickler if Death is Not an Option.
    Album: Abstain. Or, as above, Troubadour.
    Single: “Gunpowder and Lead,” with “Stay” as a terrific second choice.
    Song: “Stay.”
    Vocal Event: Sugarland / Little Big Town / Jake Owen. It’s straight-up pop, sure, but those 7-part harmonies are just stupid good.
    Video: “Stay,” because, as Kevin indirectly pointed out, country music videos tend to be a good decade-plus behind the rest of the music world.
    Musician: As always, it’s worth pointing out that this is the category that, year-in, year-out, has the most unimpeachably talented group of nominees. I was pulling for drummer Eddie Bayers last year on the basis of his long losing streak, and I’ll back Franklin this year for the same reason.

    And, even with the emergence of Joey & Rory as another seemingly legitimate contender, the Vocal Group and Vocal Duo categories should’ve been combined years ago.

  5. “And, even with the emergence of Joey & Rory as another seemingly legitimate contender, the Vocal Group and Vocal Duo categories should’ve been combined years ago.”

    I’ve always thought that would be a great idea. The board seems to strain year in and year out to find 5 contenders to round out both catgories – with one surefire winner in both too. Yawn.

  6. That would be great if the duo/group were combined. It would get rid of the dead weight and make the race interesting!

    I can’t wait for next year when Joey + Rory (Duo and album?), Lee Ann Womack (with female nomination and hopefully album), and Sugarland (Album?) will actually give me more candidates to care about.

  7. I would like to see Brad Paisley win Entertainer of the Year.

    I think Carrie Underwood has done enough to retain her crown.

    I think George Straight will be the sentimental favorite and win his first Vocalist award of this decade.

    The biggest upset of the night could be Little Big Town walking away with the Vocal Group of the Year Award.

    Sugarland in walk for Best Duo.

    “Gun Powder and Lead” for Single of the Year.

    “Stay” for Song of the Year.

    I’d like to see Kelly Pickler win the New Artist Award just to hear her acceptance speech. It could be the most entertaining part of the night. Lady A will most likely keep that from happening though.

    Allen Jackson’s Good Time for Album of the Year. Just a guess here. It could be any of them really.

    I’d like to see Trisha and Josh win for Vocal Event. It would make up for the fact they were not nominated in their respective vocal categories.

    Good luck to all the Nominees.

  8. Entertainer: I guess I will jump on the Sugarland bandwagon.
    Male Vocalist: Brad Paisley I guess.
    Female Vocalist: Carrie Underwood has continued to surprise me by how much I like her.
    Vocal Group: Rascal Flatts. I know you’ll all want to kill me, but they have consistently put out music I enjoy. Little Big Town is my next choice though. I’m With the Band was excellent!
    Vocal Duo: Sugarland. Another artist who continues to impress me! Big & Rich would normally take my vute, but they haven’t been particularly active, and their recent album wasn’t as good as their first two.
    New Artist: Jason Aldean all the way, although I do think Rodney Atkins is under recognized.
    Album: Carrie Underwood – “Carnival Ride”. Once again, Carrie is impressing me. Plus, I largely dislike most of the rest.
    Single: “Stay” takes my vote, with “Gunpowder” in second. Wow these two are popular.
    Song: “Stay.”
    Vocal Event: Quite frankly, I find this category a disaster this year. Whoever decided “Shiftwork” should be nominated for an award should be… fired. However, “Every Other Weekend” wasn’t that bad (it’s mostly the dull melody of the verses that I don’t like) because the emotion and harmonies in the chorus is quite powerful.
    Video: I actually wasn’t blown away by any of these videos, but “Waitin’ on a Woman is charming. “Stay” is a double-edged sword for me. It is emotion powerful and effective for that reason, and did elevate the song, like a good video does, I guess I’m just disappointed with it lack of “stuff”.

  9. Entertainer – Sugarland: They’re probably the least likely to win this but it’d be interesting to see them win.

    Male: Keith Urban: I think he’s put out consistanly good material and really the other’s have bored me in the past year.

    Female: Miranda Lambert: She’s releasing the most interesting music and she’s having better chart success than Martina.

    Duo: Sugarland: Is there really any competition here? B&D have had a terrible year, B&R had 1 low charting single, MG have had hits but haven’t been consistant sellers and The Wreckers are basically done. This is the most surefire win of the night.

    Group: Rascal Flatts are going to win but Little Big Town should. LBT put out a great album though they didn’t sell much or have much chart success.

    Horizon: James is my favorite but Jason will most likely win it as he’s had the best year of them all.

    Album: Like it was said weakest category but I think Carrie should win soley because of sales. George would be my second pick.

    Single: Gunpowder & Lead: I’m sure it surprised many how well this made it on the charts so I think this should win.

    Song: Stay: Out of the choices this is the best, there’s a couple of other songs I’d like to have been nominated though.

    Vocal: “Another Try” : out of the one’s nominated their voices sound the best together.

    Music Video: Stay: It’s really simple but it’s extreamly effective. I didn’t like “Waitin’ On A Woman”…sorry.

    Musician: Paul Franklin I love Steel Guitar.

  10. Entertainer: I think this should be Brad Paisley’s year to breakthrough with a win in this category…but look for Chesney to take it again.

    Male: Brad Paisley should and will win. The closest competition would be Urban and Strait.

    Female: I love Miranda, but I love Carrie more. With a few more number 1’s under her belt and another multi-platinum album, look for Underwood to get her third straight vocalist win.

    Group: I would love to see Little Big Town take it! But again, Rascal Flatts are still huge even though they haven’t had great music this year.

    Duo: Sugarland Sugarland Sugarland!! It was a travesty that they didn’t win the ACM award (what happened there?!), but I think they’ll have a huge night!

    New Artist: It’s a toss up between Rodney Atkins and Lady A. I think the CMA will give it to Rodney, but I would love to see Lady A win.

    Album: I love Carrie’s and George’s cd. I have a feeling they’ll give it to Strait but I wouldn’t be surprised if Underwood’s “Carnival Ride” takes it.

    Single: I think it’ll be “Stay.” It’s a great song and I think it hit top 5 while Miranda’s “Gunpowder and Lead” only hit top 10.

    Song: “Stay.” Hands down.

    Vocal: I would love to see “Another Try” take it but I’m thinking it’ll be the Sugarland, LBT, Jake Owen tune or Chesney/Strait.

    Video: I love ‘Stay’ and ‘Waitin’ on a Woman’ so either one would be great with me!

  11. I don’t understand why any of you don’t think Keith Urban deserves EOTY. He toured for most of the year…a world tour at that, with rave reviews. One reviewer had even predicted Brad Paisley as his choice for EOTY then he saw Keith and changed his mind real fast! Keith is more about the music than most of these…IMO! Kenny is about partying, Brad is all about his gimmicks, George just stands there(he does so beautifully though). I personally have never left any of the above artists shows wanting more like I do with Keith’s! He makes you feel like he’s singing and performing just for you! I can’t imagine Brad performing with just his guitar and putting on an outstanding show like Keith could and has. No matter if he doesn’t get rewarded for it, he is the Best Entertainer of any of them. Just my thoughts!

  12. I’ve decided that there are three good reasons to watch the CMAs this year:

    1. To see if Little Big Town can pull off the what-will-be-termed-an-upset-but-shouldn’t be over Rascal Flatts in the vocal group category.

    2. To see where CMA voters will reward Miranda Lambert. Will they give it to her in the single or female vocalist category? She’s the underdog in both, but she’s come on strong of late. It would be a huge shame if she got shut out entirely

    3. Umm, just kidding. I guess there are only two!

    Gloria- Keith Urban would have been my second pick for Entertainer of the Year. I was also very impressed with his concert. He’s got incredible charm and stage presence. But I think this is Brad’s year. He hasn’t won and he deserves it.

  13. ETOY – Keith Urban – World tour, major money making co headlining tour with Carrie Undrwood, every song he puts out is great and he has been snubbed for too long.

    MVOTY – Brad Paisley – He is so consistant with his music, staying true to country, his tour is a hit as usual.

    FVOTY – Carrie Underwood – I think this would be the obvious one, she vetured out on her first headlining tour and it is said to be one of best tours of the year by critics. Four #1’s in the eligable time frame, three of which are co written, and she hasn’t storpped all year she will of performed more concerts than any other artist by the end of the year.

    GOTY – Rascal Flatts – Consistancy, on the charts and on the stage, they are a machine at pumping out the good singles.

    DOTY – Sugarland – I think they have really stepped up their game this year and it will pay off even after the awards.

    NA – I would love for Rodney Atkins all his singles have been great and he just has had more airplay than the others. But I’m not sure wasn’t he and JA nom last year???

    AOTY – Toss between Carrie Underwood again 4 staight #1’s from CR, sales are like 1mil more than the other noms. Or George as usual he puts out great music one after another.

    SOTY – Miranda all the way GAL just has grit, sass and attitude like classic bar coutry music, love it.

    Song – I’m going way out on a limb but I just love Trace’s “Your Gonna Miss This”, it tells a great story that any parent can relate to.

  14. I’m always surprised by the lack of support Carrie Underwood recieves on this website. Yes, this particular discussion is an opinion-based one, but normally anything related to Carrie is completely bias and is evident through the tone of the article. She deserves th Female Vocalist of the Year award because of the all hard work and dedication she puts into it; Miranda, while fantastic, has yet to show that amount of determination. The award, hands down, should go to Underwood.

  15. Beth,

    Carrie Underwood gets a tremendous amount of support at Country Universe, actually, and she has since she launched her career (which was after the site itself.) If you go back to the archives, you’ll see that.

    At least two of our writers (myself and Blake) think she’s very worthy of the Female Vocalist trophy, and we’ve repeatedly made the case that the trophy she should be winning this year is the one that she’s not nominated for: Entertainer of the Year.

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