By Brian Ives 

Miranda Lambert is one of country music’s leading artists, but during the GRAMMY Awards earlier this year, she showed all of the other performers (save, perhaps, AC/DC) how to actually rock. With her explosive performance of her current single “Little Red Wagon” (from her GRAMMY-winning 2014 album Platinum), Lambert earned more than a few new fans that night, including people previously unfamiliar with her music.

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That fiery performance style isn’t new to country fans, however, who’ve been enamored with her persona and her incredible body of work for more than a decade. Since getting national exposure on the 2003 season of Nashville Star, Lambert has become well known as an artist who possesses both a great respect for country’s roots and the instinct to not allow those roots to confine her.

That respect for tradition and the willingness to break with it and move the genre forward are both on full display on Platinum, an album that won her plenty of accolades in 2014 (not to mention a couple of hit singles). That success, coupled with her popularity as a concert headliner, just might finally earn Lambert her first ACM Entertainer of the Year award at the 50th ACM Awards this Sunday.

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This year, the competition for Entertainer of the Year is especially tough. For starters, fellow nominees include 2012 Entertainer of the Year winner Luke Bryan, who is also cohosting the ACM Awards ceremony (along with Blake Shelton). Bryan headlined a sold-out arena and stadium tour, released another spring break EP and cranked out single after single from his Crash My Party. Only potential downside? That album that was released…in 2013.

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First-time nominees Florida Georgia Line occupy the center of country music’s zeitgeist, and their Anything Goes album was also filled with hits. But it remains to be seen whether or not they are the type of career artists who tend to win Entertainer of the Year; sometimes it really is an honor just to be nominated.

Then there’s Garth Brooks, whose return to recording and touring was a hugely exciting part of country music in 2014. But are the fans showing up to his concerts going to want to hear songs from Man Against Machine, or the old stuff?  With all due respect—and a lot of respect is due to the man—awarding Brooks with Entertainer of the Year would be sort of like saying that the Rolling Stones are the rock band of the year just because they put out an album. Yes, fellow veteran George Strait won Entertainer of the Year last year. But when too many awards like that go to legacy artists just for showing up, it’s a bad look (think Steely Dan or Herbie Hancock winning Album of the Year at the GRAMMYs). Everyone loves Garth, and we’re all glad that he’s back; we’re just saying, give him props in a more appropriate way.

So that leaves Jason Aldean. Country’s classic rock-ish stadium headliner, Aldean started the year still riding off of the success of 2012’s Night Train and ended it with a new one, Old Boots New Dirt. That album was artistically risky, and he deserves credit for leading with “Burnin’ It Down,” a song that’s more Usher than Aerosmith (if this were the 1970s he might even have been accused of “going disco”). Country audiences today, though, are open to artists wearing diverse influences on their sleeves, so the song turned into a massive radio hit.

But while Old Boots New Dirt showed Aldean taking chances, Platinum is a career album for Lambert, for its sonic diversity and its thematic step forward into more ‘mature’ subject matter.

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