NASHVILLE - Kenny Chesney has made the very hard work of dominating country music look easy.
And Taylor Swift is paying close attention. The 19-year-old sensation has the record sales. She beat out every living artist - no matter the genre - this year with more than 3 million copies of her "Fearless" CD sold and counting (only Michael Jackson has sold more). The album remains No. 3 after 51 weeks on the charts.
And she's moving concert tickets as fast as they can print them.
That might be enough to sway the more than 5,000 members of the Country Music Association, who decide who gets the trophy for entertainer of the year, the CMA's highest honour, at the CMA Awards on Wednesday night (the broadcast will air live on ABC).
She's the youngest ever nominated for the award and the first solo female act since Faith Hill in 2000, and she's faced a lot of questions about whether either is a limiting factor.
"I think you have to do the work and put in the effort and do the touring that it takes to win entertainer of the year," she said in an interview with The Associated Press. "And I don't really think it has anything to do with gender. I think if you want to compete with the boys, play on a level that they're playing at."
And the guys in this category are playing at the highest.
Using a combination of unparalleled album and ticket sales, Chesney has dominated the CMA Awards' most prestigious category with three straight wins and four of the last five. A fifth win would move him past Garth Brooks for most in the 43 years of the awards. This is the eighth straight year he's sold more than a million concert tickets, and fans are drawn to his brand of Caribbean cool like no other.
Brad Paisley leads all nominees with seven and is entering his second year as co-host with Carrie Underwood. His album "American Saturday Night" debuted at No. 2 on the album charts when it was released earlier this year and he's had 11 straight No. 1 singles on the country charts.
Keith Urban's supercharged live show has made him one of country's most bankable stars and his album "Defying Gravity" hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200. He's the only artist to interrupt Chesney's recent domination in the category, winning in 2005.
And then there's George Strait, a two-time winner in the category and CMA's career leader in nominations (79, with Alan Jackson) and wins (22) whose "Twang" also debuted as the nation's No. 1 album. Paisley said he's put together the kind of career and rapport with his fans that's really only possible in country music, and that "always" makes him a contender.
"Look at George Strait," Paisley said. "It's just unbelievable. He first won entertainer of the year 20 years ago in 1989. Isn't that crazy?"
But 2009 might be Swift's year - and she could soon be in the company of icons like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire, three of the six other female acts to win entertainer of the year.
But tell that to Swift, and she modestly dismisses the idea: "Don't fill my head with that."
"It's so wonderful when people come up to me and say that I have a shot at winning. It actually is really, really a wonderful thing when people do that," she said. "But my parents raised me to have the mindset that the world doesn't owe me anything and you can't feel entitled to winning, you can't feel entitled to success."
It's statements like those that have won Swift fans within the industry as well - not to mention a few votes.
"I will say I did vote for her," McEntire said. "The obvious is that she is a female and I do tend to support my female friends and artists in the business, but also because I think she is the one who's done the most this year - television, touring. She is an extraordinary person and I think she highly deserves it."
AP writer Caitlin R. King in Nashville contributed to this report.
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