Call it the clash of the titans: Oddsmaker John Avello at the Wynn Hotel Las Vegas gives a slight edge here to Brooks & Dunn, while Minneapolis radio program director Gregg Swedborg thinks Brad Paisley or last year's winner, Keith Urban
, should take this based on "sheer musicianship." But most industry experts think 2004 winner Kenny Chesney will take home the trophy again. Says Billboard's Wade Jessen: "This should be Rascal Flatts'year to win, but there is simply no hotter act in town at the moment than Kenny Chesney." PEOPLE music critic Chuck Arnold agrees: "Kenny is the consummate performer," he says. "And he had another huge year on the road and on the radio."
BEST FEMALE VOCALIST
It's the vets against the newcomer. Martina McBride has "the best real voice" in the pack, says Nashville music professor E. Michael Harrington. But, says PEOPLE's Arnold: "Carrie has earned her Nashville cred after Idol. She proved she's the real deal."
BEST MALE VOCALIST
It's a tight race: Music writer Michael McCall likes "Brad Paisley
's amazing consistency and depth," and oddsmaker Avello likes Alan Jackson. But PEOPLE's Arnold picks Keith Urban: "He's a true country heartthrob. He's got the looks, and the voice to match."
THE OTHER RACES
VOCAL GROUP OF THE YEAR
ALISON KRAUSS & UNION STATION, FEATURING JERRY DOUGLAS
LITTLE BIG TOWN
"They're a phenomenon that can't be denied," says PEOPLE critic Chuck Arnold.
VOCAL DUO OF THE YEAR
BIG & RICH
BROOKS & DUNN
"The champs won't be unseated."
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
ME AND MY GANG, RASCAL FLATTS
HILLBILLY DELUXE, BROOKS & DUNN
PRECIOUS MEMORIES, ALAN JACKSON
TIME WELL WASTED, BRAD PAISLEY
THE ROAD AND THE RADIO, KENNY CHESNEY
"It's between Chesney and Rascal Flatts. I go with Kenny."
SINGLE OF THE YEAR
"SUMMERTIME," KENNY CHESNEY
"JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL," CARRIE UNDERWOOD
"BELIEVE," BROOKS & DUNN
"WHEN I GET WHERE I'M GOING," BRAD PAISLEY
"BETTER LIFE," KEITH URBAN
"Urban's big year will only get better."
LITTLE BIG TOWN
"She's the success story of the year."
ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR