Reba McEntire isn't going to return to host the CMA Awards in 2021. The country icon simply wasn't invited back for the Nov. 10 show on ABC, but her replacement has yet to be be announced. A few candidates seem likely — but this singer feels like an exciting long shot.

We'll make the case for Justin Timberlake a little later, but first, a few thoughts on why the CMAs and McEntire broke up:

The Country Music Association isn't saying, and the singer is much too professional to spill tea, but in this case there is likely not much tea to spill. With ratings dropping mightily for all awards shows in 2020 and 2021 (Variety shares that last year's CMAs drew the lowest ratings ever), a change was needed. It's very similar to a sports team changing a head coach after a disappointing season. Great coaches get fired all the time.

So, until we hear otherwise, we will assume the relationship was always transactional and no feelings were hurt by this business decision. Talking to Taste of Country Nights, McEntire seemed to take it all in stride. She even offered up a tip for future hosts.

"You’ve got to be direct-able," she said on Thursday (Oct. 7), a day after news of a new host coming broke in Billboard. "Because if you’re running over or running short … you’ve got to adapt to that. You can’t be locked into, 'This is the way it’s going to be and there’s not going to be any changes.'"

As for who is going to replace McEntire on the CMA Awards hosting scorecard? The smart money is on a man who did it last year. Below are several potential hosts, ranked in order from most to least likely. Don't dismiss No. 8, however — if the Country Music Association is looking for a big rebound, he's the guy to do it.

Darius Rucker: Darius Rucker joined McEntire in 2020. It was his first co-hosting gig, and often a tenured host paired with a rookie leads to that rookie doing it solo the following year. The ACMs do this well. McEntire hosted alone for years before she was paired with Blake Shelton, who was then paired with Luke Bryan, who was then paired with Dierks Bentley. It's a smart way to keep things fresh without upending an audience that liked what they saw the previous year.

If Rucker is the host in 2021, expect him to have a co-host. The last time anyone hosted solo was in 2003, when Vince Gill did it.

Thomas Rhett: For the longest time it looked like the CMA was training Thomas Rhett and Kelsea Ballerini as future CMA co-hosts to replace Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley. They fronted the CMA Music Festival for several years and were good television. Ballerini has become less of a presence lately, but Rhett hosted the CMA Country Christmas special in 2020. His wife Lauren joined him, and we know what you're thinking, but keep this in mind: Lauren is set to give birth in November, something that might disqualify both of them.

John Russell/CMA
John Russell/CMA

Dolly Parton: After McEntire and Rucker, Parton has done it most recently. Dolly Parton as host would indicate that the Country Music Association philosophically disagrees that now is the time to freshen up its banner night. She's great television and fans love her (and she has been doing a lot of media around no tangible new project lately). She's also been very cautious about social distancing during the pandemic. That's something to think about: Who wants to do it?

Carrie Underwood + Brad Paisley: Their respective fanbases feel they're both pretty done with the CMAs. Paisley has hinted at some frustration at not being able to tell any good jokes in the current socio-political climate, while Underwood's kept pretty quiet about her former role. They were the best at it, but it feels like too soon for a comeback.

Brad Paisley Carrie Underwood
Rick Diamond, Getty Images

Garth Brooks + Trisha Yearwood: It's a longshot, because neither has hosted a country awards show, but both seem very capable. Trisha Yearwood hosts her own cooking show and Garth Brooks is on camera weekly for his Inside Studio G special.

Tim McGraw + Faith Hill: This is an even longer shot. If Tim McGraw and Faith Hill wanted to co-host an awards show, they'd have done it by now. It's never clear if network allegiances matter, but for what it's worth, the couple's new show 1883 starts on Paramount+, a CBS property. The CMA Awards air on ABC.

Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean: All three former awards show hosts are very much longshots, as they don't have a CMA nod for their own work between them. Of the three, Bryan at least has an ABC connection, being on American Idol.

Justin Timberlake: The CMA Awards are where Justin Timberlake best introduced himself to country crowds when he teamed up with Chris Stapleton for an all-time great CMA medley. Watch it again and see that JT certainly did his share of the lifting during that mesmerizing performance. This is to say, the country crowd has reason to love him.

As host, he'd draw a lot of criticism, and the CMA Awards would be attacked for forgetting its roots and all the usual rhetoric that traditionalists tweet out. He does own a bar in Nashville, however, and he's a friend of many country artists. Keith Urban, for example, just showed up at Timberlake's bar to sing with Breland for a special event. He's long been a part of the after-party scene — maybe it's time for him to get to work!

Interest among not-country fans would surge, which is great for the genre. The bet would be that not as many old school country fans would tune out as say they might. That's probably a safe bet if the CMA is up for taking risks — not since Beyonce at the 2016 show have they done something this unexpected and edgy. That came one year after Stapleton/Timberlake. Thinking back on it, those were really good years.

50 Greatest CMA Awards Moments of All Time

Taylor SwiftCarrie Underwood and Luke Bryan all make this list of the 50 best CMA Awards moments, but so do legendary acts like Johnny CashLoretta Lynn, Barbara Mandrell and Dolly Parton (multiple times!).

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