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This story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Country music celebrates its own Nov. 6 at the CMA Awards. Hosted by Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, the ABC-televised party will showcase the genre’s chart-toppers and road warriors, 20 of whom are keeping the down-home sound alive.
PHOTOS: CMA 2012 Arrivals: Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum Hit the Red Carpet
The 36-year-old’s Night Train album is 2013’s fourth-biggest seller behind sets from Taylor Swift, Mumford & Sons and One Direction. He was the first country singer to sell out Boston’s Fenway Park.
The Band Perry
Kimberly Perry, 30, conquered the genre with a million-dollar smile and the most winning rasp since Rod’s. She and her brothers did it again this year with Pioneer, handily beating the sophomore jinx while proving there’s room for girls.
Bentley, 37, arrived a decade ago, making fans not only of country lovers but also rockers like Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, his recent jamming partner on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Radio drove three Bentley songs to No. 1 in 2011-12.
A polarizing figure, Bryan, 37, was at the center of Nashville’s Old School vs. New School debate when Zac Brown said his “That’s My Kind of Night” was “the worst song I’ve ever heard.” Plenty disagree as “Night” hit No. 1 on the country chart and Bryan’s album Crash My Party sold 528,000 copies during its first week.
Chesney, 45, has staying power. Life on a Rock, his 14th studio album over two decades, followed its predecessor, Welcome to the Fishbowl, by 10 months but still topped the country chart.
STORY: Taylor Swift and Kacey Musgraves Lead CMA Awards Nominations
Florida Georgia Line
Who’ll win the new artist award? If ordinary fans and the radio stations that cater to them had their way, it would be this upstart duo by a landslide. Their first three singles hit No. 1, and “Cruise” spent six months there.
Since 2004, Keith, 52, hasn’t let a year go by without a new album. Plus, he grossed $25 million on tour in 2012. Throw in his chain of I Love This Bar watering holes, and it’s no wonder Forbes dubbed him the “Cowboy Capitalist.”
On the heels of their fourth studio album, Golden, Hillary Scott, 27, Charles Kelley, 32, and Dave Haywood, 31, celebrated the chart-topping release with a group hug. As the trio adjusts to its new normal — Grammys, babies — it will vie for two trophies at the CMA Awards.
Solo or in a group, Lambert is heating up. “Mama’s Broken Heart” earned the 29-year-old Nashville Star alum three CMA noms. This year she also appeared alongside husband Blake Shelton on The Voice and celebrated her side band Pistol Annies’ second release, Annie Up.
Although her ABC sitcom Malibu Country was canceled after one season, McEntire, 58, continues to represent divadom at its most dolled up, complete with curling lips, mischievous eyes and that undiminished-by-Malibu accent.
McGraw, 46, made his Big Machine debut with Two Lanes of Freedom, selling 107,000 copies during its first week — his biggest tally since 2009’s Southern Voice.
His duets project, To All the Girls …, was his first top 10 entry since 1982. Looking and sounding the same as then, the 80-year-old is the North Star of music.
A 14-time CMA Award winner, Paisley, 41, practically can call the arena his office, and Nashville is both real-life and TV home to him and wife Kimberly Williams-Paisley, a star on ABC’s soap.
All three of the 47-year-old’s post-Hootie solo albums have topped the country chart, and six of his 10 singles have reached No. 1, so don’t hold your breath waiting for that Blowfish nostalgia tour.
Already a staple in Nashville, Shelton, 37, became a household name in 2011 by occupying a big red chair on NBC’s The Voice. His latest album, Based on a True Story …, has posted career-best sales.
STORY: Blake Shelton Nabs His First Million-Selling Album
At 61, Strait remains a record setter, notching his 60th No. 1 country single this year with “Give It All We Got Tonight.” His 25-date The Cowboy Rides Away tour is set for 2014.
At 23, country’s ultimate crossover artist boasts three No. 1 albums. The latest, Red, spawned seven hits, including “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”
The American Idol champ, 30, scored her third No. 1 album with 2012’s Blown Away, and her crowning achievement of 2013 came when she was handed the NFL’s Sunday Night Football theme song. Up next: NBC’s live broadcast of The Sound of Music.
Urban, 46, made his stateside TV debut on the 12th season of Idol as the mellow counterpart to Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj’s diva feuds, and he’ll return to the show in January. His eighth studio album, Fuse, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in September.
Their third studio album, 2012’s Uncaged, earned them their third Grammy, and they’re nominated for vocal group of the year at the CMAs.
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