NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Brad Paisley could finally win the CMA's coveted entertainer of the year trophy Wednesday night — but he'll have to best another veteran and three relative upstart acts to make it happen.
Paisley — who is also hosting the 44th Country Music Association Awards with Carrie Underwood — has been nominated for the award every year since 2005. Though he's won 13 CMAs since first being nominated in 2000, he's never won the biggest award.
Paisley is a favorite to win. But he faces tough competition from Miranda Lambert, Lady Antebellum, Zac Brown Band and former winner Keith Urban.
Lambert, who leads the field with nine nominations, was an early winner. She kicked off her birthday by taking video of the year for "The House That Built Me," one of two videos she was nominated for. Her fiance, Blake Shelton, also got off to a fast start with a win in the musical event category for "Hillbilly Bone" with Trace Adkins.
The entertainer of the year category underwent something of a makeover this year as the CMA membership installed a new wave of performers in key categories, acknowledging a crossover trend that is bringing country music to more new ears than ever.
The list of omissions in that category is long and includes Underwood, last year's winner Taylor Swift and several highly successful acts long considered contenders.
Still, there's no questioning the impact Lady A, Zac Brown Band and Lambert had on the industry over the past year.
"I got to make country music history, which is what everybody hope's for when they're in this industry, because I had the most nominations out of any female ever, so ... I'm having a great day already," she said, wearing a pink gown by Sherri Hill as she walked the black carpet. "It's my 27th birthday, so I'm hoping the best birthday would to take home obviously a CMA."
The hoopla for the awards started in the afternoon before the ceremony as the "black carpet" opened and stars including Julianne Hough, singer Josh Kelley and actress-wife Kathryn Heigl, and Jason Aldean made their way to the arena.
Singer and "Dancing with the Stars" alumn Hough was looking forward to a celebratory evening.
"I get to see all my friends, its like back to school," she said. "Taylor's a good friend of mine so I get to see new music from her."
Lambert, who rode the popularity of her acclaimed platinum album "Revolution" to a record for the most nominations for a woman in the 44-year history of the CMAs and the second most overall. Both of her No. 1 hits, the sassy "White Liar" and the moving "The House That Built Me," are nominated in two categories, song and single of the year.
Lambert and BFF Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum, up for five awards, are nominated together in several categories. The one that likely means the most to both is album of the year.
Lambert won that trophy at The Academy of Country Music Awards in April and it means a lot to her. At the time, Lady A was cheering her on over their own entry, the trio's self-titled debut. They released "Need You Now" in January, though, and it's sold about 3 million copies so far this year. It has produced three No. 1 hits, and they're proud of it.
Cheering for Lambert this time? Not so much.
"We definitely want to win it but if we can't we're definitely not going to be upset if Miranda runs away with it," said singer Charles Kelley. "I mean Dave (Haywood) and I even have a song that we wrote with Miranda and Blake on that record ("Love Song"). We would still feel some kind of pride in that."
Lady A, Lambert and Paisley are among the performers at the CMA Awards, which airs live on ABC. The show will also mark the debut singing performance of Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow, who stars with Tim McGraw in the upcoming movie "Country Strong."
ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Co.
Music Editor Nekesa Mumbi Moody contributed to this report.