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The Vocal Group of the Year category is filled with return visitors - and one surprise upstart.

Young bluegrass group Nickel Creek has taken the country world by storm with a Top 20 debut album, two Grammy nominations and widespread critical acclaim. Now the trio is topping off its blockbuster year with two CMA nods. (The band is also up for the Horizon Award.)

Nickel Creek's fellow nominees, however, have all been in this race before. The Dixie Chicks wound up taking home the trophy in 2000, but the gals have spent the last year laying low - lead singer Natalie Maines has been busy with her first child, and all the members are presently embroiled in a messy contract dispute with their record label. Nonetheless, the Chicks phenomenon keeps on rolling - their umpteenth hit from the nine-times-platinum Fly album, "Heartbreak Town," is on the charts even now.

Three-time winner - and 18-time nominee - Alabama is also enjoying another chance at the prize. It's country's most highly decorated group, having earned CMA awards, ACM awards and even the Recording Industry Association of America's "Country Group Of The Century" honor. "Anytime awards come along, and people recognize you for the hard work you've done, you appreciate it," says bass player Teddy Gentry. "It makes you feel good."

But they're not done by a long shot - the guys released their When It All Goes South album earlier this year, and have spent much of 2001 crisscrossing North America to play for their legion of fans.

Lonestar is also having a great year - the group's smash "I'm Already There," from the gold-selling No. 1 album of the same name, locked up the top of the charts for six weeks, proving it was no sweat for these guys to follow up their 1999 hit factory, Lonely Grill. "This has blown us all away," says lead singer Richie McDonald.

Diamond Rio has won Vocal Group of the Year four times - 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1997 - and enjoyed a massive hit this year with "One More Day," which is itself nominated for Single and Song of the Year. Their album, also called One More Day, roared onto the charts at No. 5 early this year. "We received our first CMA nomination 10 years ago," notes Dan Truman. "Here we are a decade later, again honored to be recognized by our peers."