CMA ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR AWARD NOMINEES

Illustrations by Brad Walker

THE BIG NIGHT

Stars and surprises are in store at this year's show. There'll be more to celebrate at the 2001 CMA Awards than who brings home the cherished glass trophies - this will be the CMA's 35th annual award show, and Vince Gill's 10th year as host, making it a milestone year for country's biggest night.

It's bound to be an exciting show no matter what, with dazzling performances by the brightest stars - including George Strait, Toby Keith, Brooks & Dunn, Lee Ann Womack and many others - beamed live from Nashville's legendary Grand Ole Opry House.

You can get ready for the big night with Country Weekly's special guide to the CMAs. In the following pages you'll find out all about this year's nominees and relive some of the most memorable CMA moments from years past. You can even keep score with your own ballot, and compare your choices with the voters in our "straw poll."

This year's show promises thrills, chills, suspense and surprises. Don't miss it!

DIXIE CHICKS

If the defending champion Dixie Chicks - Natalie Maines, Martie Seidel and Emily Robison - claim the title again, they'll be the first vocal group to accomplish consecutive wins since Alabama nailed a three-peat in 1982, '83 and '84.

Possibly hampering their chances is the Chicks' decidedly low profile in 2001 - Natalie has been busy with her first baby, and the group is tangled in a complicated lawsuit against their record label.

Still, the group continues to ride high on the blockbuster status of its first two groundbreaking albums. Following the amazing success of their 11-million-selling debut, Wide Open Spaces, it may have been tempting for them to rest on their laurels.

But their follow-up, Fly, saw the Chicks even more determined to push the envelope. "I definitely think we'd grown since we recorded Wide Open Spaces," says Emily. "We were not as scared to let the harmonies come through or take extra time to have an awesome solo."

The risks paid off. Fly debuted at the top spot on the country albums sales chart - and produced smash hits "Ready To Run," "Goodbye Earl" and "Cowboy Take Me Away."

What's more, Fly is fast on the heels of Wide Open Spaces, with sales hovering near 10 million copies. The Chicks further soared with their Fly Tour, which played to more than a million fans and was featured in a TV special on NBC.

"All of our abilities just grew from playing so much and being around each other," sums up lead singer Natalie. "We have become even better friends, and that makes for better music."

ALAN JACKSON

Upon hearing news of his four nominations, in-cluding Entertainer of the Year, Alan Jackson, a man of few words, responded with just two.

"Yee haw!" he said.

For a star so accustomed to accolades, perhaps that's all that needs saying.

Alan's four nods bring his total CMA nomination count to 50, placing him second only to George Strait, who now has 66. He's won eight CMAs, including the Vocal Event award he shared last year with George for "Murder On Music Row."

But when you're talking about numbers for Alan, another figure stands out: 35 million. As of this year, that's how many albums he has sold in his amazing 12-year career.

On the concert trail, Alan was a headliner on the 2001 George Strait Country Music Festival mega-tour, one of the year's blockbuster events that played to sold-out stadiums nationwide.

And the hits keep on coming. In the last year, Alan's string of smash singles included "When Somebody Loves You," "www.memory" and his newest, "Where I Come From." His latest album, When Somebody Loves You, hit No. 1 and has sold more than a million copies.

Alan's career will always be defined by his staunch crusade for traditional country. "That's the kind of music I do and that's what I like," he maintains. "Even if they quit playing me and quit buying it, and I'm still making records, I'll still make this same type."

And that's how he wants to be remembered. "I just come here with the intention of singing and recording good country music," says the soft-spoken singer. "I've never changed my style, because I never wanted to."

TIM MCGRAW

Currently country's hottest male singer, Tim McGraw has his eye this year on the one CMA prize that has so far managed to elude him: Entertainer of the Year. He's already copped two Male Vocalist honors, two Album awards and a Vocal Event trophy shared with wife Faith Hill. But a win here would provide the icing on an already sweet year.

Coming off a bang-up 2000, which saw him headline that year's top tour, the Soul 2 Soul lovefest with Faith, Tim kept the machine rolling in 2001 with a tour featuring guest star Kenny Chesney. After raking in more than $25 million, it became the year's No. 1 country outing - outdistancing even superstar events like the George Strait Country Music Festival and Brooks & Dunn's Neon Circus & Wild West Show.

"I was really proud of that whole tour," says Tim. "I felt like we had a real formula for success, with Kenny being on it and with the production."

His latest album, Set This Circus Down, also yielded big dividends. The CD debuted at the top spot on the charts and produced a pair of smash hits, "Grown Men Don't Cry" and "Angry All The Time."

He's even conquering a new medium - television. Tim was all over the tube in ads for Bud Light and appearances on Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood. A blockbuster performance on the Today show summer concert series drew nearly 4,000 fans to the streets of New York City.

Despite superstardom, Tim remains humbled by his CMA nods. "I'll take any I can get, and I accept them proudly," he says. "These nominations are a tribute to the support and hard work of a great team."

GEORGE STRAIT

To include George Strait in this category speaks volumes about his rock-solid consistency. Of the other nominees, only Alan Jackson was making records at the time George was winning his first Entertainer trophy in 1989. And even then, Alan was a wet-behind-the-ears newcomer.

Hundreds of artists have come and gone, but George has reigned over country music in every way imaginable - on the charts, on the radio, at record stores and at the box office.

He has recorded 25 albums that have either hit or surpassed the million-sales mark. His whopping 36 No. 1 hits rank him first among current country stars. And for the past four years, George has hosted the nation's biggest outdoor superparty, the George Strait Country Music Festival. Despite playing in only a select few cities, the event consistently ranks as one of country's top tours.

The fans are not alone in recognizing George's impact. The CMA voters have honored George with 66 total nominations and 12 awards. Should he ride home with this year's Entertainer trophy, he'll become the third only three-time winner in history, joining Alabama and Garth Brooks, who won his fourth in 1998.

And George can wield the numbers to pull it off. His latest album, simply titled George Strait, went over the million mark and produced the smash singles "Go On" and "Don't Make Me Come Over There And Love You."

But awards have always taken a back seat to George's overall goal. "All I ever wanted was to have some longevity in this business," he says. "But it's still an honor to be nominated."

BROOKS & DUNN

Brooks & Dunn roared back like an angry lion after a disappointing 2000. That year the dynamic duo lost their hold on the Vocal Duo award after eight straight victories, their album Tight Rope met with slow sales and negative reviews - and worse, they heard more than a few suggestions that it was time to break up the act.

But Kix and Ronnie stepped up to the plate and proved that they could still pack a wallop. Their current album, Steers & Stripes, recaptured their classic country-rockin' feel, producing such monster hits as "Ain't Nothing 'Bout You" and "Only In America." Steers & Stripes also grabbed the No. 1 sales spot on the country album charts.

Capping off their big year, Kix and Ronnie's Neon Circus & Wild West Show blitzed the nation with an all-star lineup including Toby Keith, Montgomery Gentry and keith urban.

The duo's re-energized spirit paid off with four nominations. "This has been a year where we've really re-focused on the music," admits Ronnie. "It's gratifying to see people recognize that."

Should Brooks & Dunn be recognized with country's highest honor, it would mark their first Entertainer win since 1996. But Ronnie makes it clear that their renewed commitment was not about chasing after awards.

"Kix and I did it for ourselves and the fans," Ronnie insists. "But it's nice when people respond to the change along with you."

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