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Brian Mansfield, USA TODAY

Thursday is country music's biggest night, a time when the industry anoints its favored sons and daughters and names the music it loves most. USA TODAY's Nashville correspondent Brian Mansfield picks the night's likely winners - and the acts that ought to be.


Entertainer of the year

Jason Aldean

Kenny Chesney

Brad Paisley

Blake Shelton

Taylor Swift

Should/will win: Jason Aldean. Yes, Taylor Swift is the bigger act, but Aldean keeps more of his eggs in the country basket. Plus, as he has shown in recent weeks, he can now sell out stadiums, too.

Female vocalist

Kelly Clarkson

Miranda Lambert

Martina McBride

Taylor Swift

Carrie Underwood

Should win: Carrie Underwood. The show's co-host is country radio's most-played female act for 2012 (though barely), and she has won this award three times for a reason.

Will win: Miranda Lambert. She's making great records, and she comes across as one of the guys. That can go a long way at voting time.

Male vocalist

Jason Aldean

Luke Bryan

Eric Church

Blake Shelton

Keith Urban

Should/will win: Expect a new winner here - meaning Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan or Eric Church. Aldean's most likely, either foreshadowing his entertainer win or as consolation should Taylor Swift take the top honor.

New artist

Lee Brice

Brantley Gilbert

Hunter Hayes

Love and Theft

Thompson Square

Should win: Hunter Hayes. Anyone who doesn't know that this 21-year-old singer/songwriter/picker is a superstar in the making just isn't paying attention.

Will win: Brantley Gilbert. He's a little farther along in his career than Hayes, having written big hits for Jason Aldean and cut a couple of No. 1 songs of his own.

Vocal group

Eli Young Band

Lady Antebellum

Little Big Town

The Band Perry

Zac Brown Band

Should/will win: Lady Antebellum. The trio has won the past three years and remain a sales and airplay juggernaut. Country's guard may be changing, but don't expect that here.

Vocal duo

Big & Rich

Love and Theft

Sugarland

The Civil Wars

Thompson Square

Should win: The Civil Wars. Radio won't play them, but their sparse, acoustic sound has deeper country roots than the other acts. They also outsold most of them.

Will win: Thompson Square. They haven't duplicated the success of 2010's Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not? but they're still the mainstream nominee with the most momentum.

Single

Jason Aldean, Dirt Road Anthem

Blake Shelton, God Gave Me You

Dierks Bentley, Home

Little Big Town, Pontoon

Eric Church, Springsteen

Should win: Pontoon. Little Big Town, much loved within the industry community, created a completely fresh take on the country-lifestyle summer song.

Will win: Dirt Road Anthem. Despite its hip-hop overtones, or perhaps because of them, this became a genre-reshaping smash with 3.3 million downloads.

Album

Eric Church, Chief

Miranda Lambert, Four the Record

Dierks Bentley, Home

Lady Antebellum, Own the Night

Luke Bryan, tailgates & tanlines

Should win: Miranda Lambert. She won in 2010 for Revolution, so expect voters to spread the love this year. Creatively, though, she's still the one to beat.

Will win: Eric Church. With producer Jay Joyce, Church made country so tough it was almost metallic. The industry ate it up, giving him his first No. 1 hits.

Song

Even If It Breaks Your Heart, Eli Young Band (Writers: Will Hoge/Eric Paslay)

God Gave Me You, Blake Shelton (Dave Barnes)

Home, Dierks Bentley (Dan Wilson/Brett Beavers/Dierks Bentley)

Over You, Miranda Lambert (Miranda Lambert/Blake Shelton)

Springsteen, Eric Church (Eric Church/Ryan Tyndell/Jeff Hyde)

Should win: Even If It Breaks Your Heart. In an exceptional field, this "keep on dreaming" anthem rings true and resonates deeply.

Will win: Home. Dierks Bentley's conciliatory message offers a new paradigm for country patriotism, representing the better nature of the music.

Musical event

Dixie Highway, Alan Jackson featuring Zac Brown Band

Feel Like a Rock Star, Kenny Chesney (duet with Tim McGraw)

Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, Willie Nelson with Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson

Safe & Sound, Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars

Stuck on You, Lionel Richie (with Darius Rucker)

Should win: Safe & Sound. This haunting million-seller displayed Taylor Swift's breadth, boosted the Civil Wars' career and launched The Hunger Games soundtrack.

Will win: Stuck on You. That's right, the guys who fronted The Commodores and Hootie & the Blowfish will beat Snoop Dogg. For a country award.

Music video

Come Over, Kenny Chesney

Over You, Miranda Lambert

Pontoon, Little Big Town

Red Solo Cup, Toby Keith

Springsteen, Eric Church

Should/will win: Eric Church. If Church wins just one award, it'll be this one, for a clip about young love and suburban garage bands.

Musician

Sam Bush, mandolin

Paul Franklin, pedal steel guitar

Dann Huff, guitar

Brent Mason, guitar

Mac McAnally, guitar

Should win: Paul Franklin. It's time for someone other than a guitar player to win this award, and pedal-steel player Franklin has defined country's sound like few others.

Will win: Brent Mason. If a guitar player must win, let it go to a guy who's still playing big parts on major records.

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