Toby Keith is all about democracy when it comes to The Academy of Country Music's entertainer of the year award.
Keith won that trophy in 2003 and 2004 thanks to a vote of his peers and members of the industry. But if he wins the coveted trophy on Sunday, it will be because of the fans, and Keith couldn't be happier, calling it a "beautiful thing."
"Why can't the awards be up to the fans, too, since they're the only reason that any of us get to go to work every day?" Keith said, applauding the switch in voting rules, which took effect in 2008. "Politics should have no place in awards show. ... So if you don't get nominated or don't win, you can't complain. Work harder."
Odds are those fans will choose a first-time winner Sunday at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, from where the ACMs will be broadcast live on CBS. Keith is the only previous winner in the field of six, and with Kenny Chesney and Carrie Underwood, winners of the last six trophies, not nominated this year, it's especially hard to predict a winner.
Keith is joined by Brad Paisley, Taylor Swift and Keith Urban. The latter three are previous winners of Country Music Association artist of the year award who haven't broken through at the ACMs yet. Rounding out the field are first-time nominees Miranda Lambert and Jason Aldean.
Lambert's nomination is not a surprise. She's been cleaning up on the awards circuit, kicking it off with three wins at last year's ACMs, and winning CMA Awards and at the Grammys as well. But Aldean wondered if he'd ever be nominated for a major award before getting nods for entertainer and top male vocalist this year.
He was especially stoked about the entertainer nod, which goes to artists considered at the pinnacle of the genre in a variety of areas, including touring, album sales and radio airplay.
"There's a reason that thing's announced last," Aldean said. "That's the one that everybody wants. For me that's the biggest award for a country music artist. If there was one that I wanted really, really bad, it would be that one."
Lambert is the top individual nominee with seven, and she joins other familiar names with multiple nominations, including Lady Antebellum and the Zac Brown Band; all have had success on the awards circuit over the last year and a half.
But some new faces are nominated in top categories, adding some spontaneity in the mix; The Band Perry and Easton Corbin are both nominated in more than one category, and both are nominated for single of the year for their breakthrough songs _ the Band Perry's "If I Die Young" and Corbin's "A Little More Country Than That."
The album of the year category has no new acts, though only one artist has won it before _ Swift, who got it in 2009 for "Fearless." Her "Speak Now" is up against Chesney's "Hemingway's Whiskey," Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now," Zac Brown Band's "You Get What You Give," Dierks Bentley's "Up on the Ridge" and Jamey Johnson's "The Guitar Song."
Chesney, who has five nominations this year and won entertainer of the year four times in a row from 2005 to 2008, is looking to conquer a new category with an album he thinks is special.
"The saying goes, `It all starts with a song,' and I came to town as a songwriter," Chesney said. "To make a record like `Hemingway's Whiskey' and to see it be nominated and recognized, it kind of goes to the heart of the all the foundations that I've kind of built my life around on the road and off the road because I love great songs."
Brown, the night's most nominated artist with five as a member of the Zac Brown Band and four as a producer and composer, isn't going to get wrapped up in the drama of who wins and who doesn't. He admits he has a "weird perspective" on awards shows and simply focuses on the chance to perform. He said too often nominated artists who don't take home a trophy are left with "a weird sense of defeat."
"The truth is if you've got a life being a country music entertainer, you win because you're able to do what you love and you've got a fan base that follows it and you can do what you like to do. You've already won," Brown said.
AP writer Caitlin R. King contributed to this report.