The Country Music Association Awards air on Wednesday night, and we’ll add our annual explainer: This is known as the most prestigious country music award show. This is not the Academy of Country Music Awards (that airs in April) or the CMT Awards (that’s for music videos) or the American Country Awards (that doesn’t exist anymore).
Now that we’ve cleared that up, here are five things to keep an eye out for tonight during the 49th annual show, airing at 8 p.m. ET on ABC, always filled with some strange moments.
1) Awkward jokes about Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert’s divorce.
This is the most obvious contender: Country music’s power couple had a highly-publicized split over the summer, an elephant in the room that’s impossible to ignore. Shelton and Lambert are both scheduled to perform, so they’ll be in attendance. Plus, they’re nominated for Male and Female Vocalist of the Year respectively, which they have each won for the past five consecutive years. Will that streak be broken on Wednesday?
More importantly, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood co-host the show for the eighth year in a row; as always, they will have a monologue of topical jabs about the past year in country music. Paisley guarantees nothing is off limits, and Shelton says he fully expects to be a target of some jokes. The only question is: Just how awkward will it be?
2) Newcomers stealing thunder.
The biggest story from the nominations (find a complete list here) is how many new names were announced. Chris Stapleton, critically-adored but ignored by mainstream country radio, landed three nods for new artist, male vocalist and album of the year. Kacey Musgraves, in a similar situation to Stapleton, is also up for three awards. Popular newcomers including Sam Hunt, Kelsea Ballerini and Maddie & Tae were also nominated in multiple categories.
3) Random collaborations.
Coming up on the CMAs stage … is Justin Timberlake! Sure enough, pop superstar will collaborate with Stapleton. Country award shows love pairing up Nashville performers with pop acts, but it can get pretty divisive. (Remember Little Big Town and Ariana Grande?) Other pairings this year include Thomas Rhett with Fall Out Boy, along with Keith Urban and John Mellencamp.
4) Women in country music.
Might seem like an odd thing to watch for, but one of country music’s biggest issues this year was the lack of women on country radio — and why women have a difficult time breaking into the genre. It all culminated in a controversy known as #Saladgate, when a radio consultant said that to increase ratings, stations should limit music by women on the air to 15 percent. He then compared men to lettuce and women tomatoes in the country music salad.
Anyway, the CMAs made a point of saying that the “top women of country” would perform on the three-hour broadcast, so that should be another hot topic on Wednesdsay — in addition to some vegetable jokes.
5) Entertainer of the year.
The show’s biggest category is also the most divisive: Garth Brooks, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Eric Church and Miranda Lambert are up for the trophy. Will it be Bryan, arguably the genre’s biggest star? Church, always a top seller despite never playing by the rules? Chesney, for continuing to sell out stadiums? Lambert, consistently a hitmaker? Or Brooks, simply for coming out of retirement? Either way, there will be debate the next day.