NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- The Country Music Association's entertainer of the year is the group's highest honor, and voting for the trophy is conducted under strict confidentiality.
But we were able to find a voter who didn't think Miranda Lambert, who leads all CMA nominees with nine, was worthy of the top award.
Her name? Miranda Lambert. She had three chances to vote for herself, and said she passed.
"I just feel like it's such a big deal to be nominated for entertainer of the year," Lambert said. "I'm kind of weirded out that I got in there. Oh, I just can't believe it. But I feel like when you actually win it, it's something that you really have to earn. I have done two headlining tours and they were both this year. You know, I feel like I still have a ways to go before I deserve to take that home."
Lambert's not alone in her angst. The three members of Lady Antebellum — Hillary Scott, Dave Haywood and Charles Kelley — also declared that they did not vote for themselves. Scott called it "extremely premature."
Yet there they are, along with another newcomer, Zac Brown Band, former winner Keith Urban and Brad Paisley, probably the safest bet to win the CMA's most coveted award Wednesday night in Nashville.
The association's traditionally conservative membership has gone radical this year, sweeping away a number of longtime entertainer contenders in favor of something shiny and new. The move was an interesting one to longtime watchers of the awards.
"I have heard they are looking for a new regime, wanting to turn things around and to kind of mix up the shuffle," said Reba McEntire, the 1986 CMA entertainer of the year. "Well, they definitely did. This has sure gotten everybody to talk about it."
And generally what they're saying is, "Huh?" This year's nominations have led to a frank, open and honest conversation.
For those who support the new acts, it's simply a changing of the guard. It happens every so often, with newer, hipper acts muscling aside fading favorites. Then there are those who think longevity is also part of the award and that nominees should have a long history of hits.
"The only thing that I was disappointed in was the acts that have been headlining for so many years, they were not nominated," McEntire said. "In particular, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts. I would've assumed they would've been in that nomination before Zac Brown Band, Lady A and Miranda Lambert."
This sea change by voters has sparked a debate about the nature of the award. There is a perception that entertainer of the year requirements are laid out like commandments on a stone tablet, but the reality is everyone has a different definition.
And the rules don't help much. Look at the language closely and the word ambiguous comes to mind:
"This award is for the act displaying the greatest competence in all aspects of the entertainment field. Voter should give consideration not only to recorded performance, but also to the in-person performance, staging, public acceptance, attitude, leadership, and overall contribution to the Country Music image."
Jay DeMarcus, member of the perennially snubbed supergroup Rascal Flatts and the CMA's board of directors, says the criteria is confusing.
"I've been trying to get to the bottom of it for years," said DeMarcus, who is chairman of the artists relations committee. "I still don't understand it. I sit in those rooms and say, 'Can someone explain this to me?' ... There are certainly people who have been denied before and I think it's something that needs to be addressed and fixed."
Who's definition would you use, then?
For many the number of concert tickets sold is a big factor — perhaps the biggest. It's a great measure of just how popular an act is.
So are record sales.
Many also believe the act should have some sort of television presence, should be a model citizen who donates time and money to charity, and should be a zealous missionary in country music's never-ending search for converts.
"When you figure it out let me know," Jason Aldean said.
Aldean is another singer who had a legitimate claim on an entertainer nomination, yet he was shut out of the awards completely. He's disappointed by the snub and thinks the debate over who gets nominated and how is pointless. He believes the whole thing's rigged.
As a singer on an independent label, he has few CMA members to back him when nominees are chosen. Same goes for McGraw, who records for Curb Records. And that might also explain why a year after winning entertainer and three other CMA Awards, Big Machine's Swift, the biggest name in country and pop, is up for just one.
"The average fan doesn't understand how all that stuff works and the industry probably doesn't want them to," Aldean said. "Fans watch a show and they get all up in arms because their favorite artist wasn't nominated or didn't win an award they were nominated for. Bottom line is it's not based on anything, man. It's based on who can rally the most troops for their guy, and sometimes this guy wins and sometimes that guy wins. It's just kind of the way it all shakes down."
Aldean says the torch will be passed eventually and thought this year's nominations were "kinda cool" for including the three new acts. Despite their protestations, Miranda Lambert and Lady A do have game.
Lady A's "Need You Now" is the No. 2 album of 2010 so far and they've been a fixture on the charts for more than a year. The trio launched its first headlining tour this fall and is country music's second-biggest crossover draw behind Swift.
They're nominated for five awards, trailing only Lambert, who is up for nine — the CMA record for a woman and the second most ever.
Lambert's album "Revolution" was widely hailed as the best album of 2009, has gone platinum and spawned the No. 1 country hits "White Liar" and "The House That Built Me."
"I thought it was just about ticket sales and the amount of people you play in front of, and it's not," said Lambert, who put out her first record five years ago but had her biggest success over the last year. "It's a very broad award. It's about everything you've done in the past year, and I've definitely worked my butt off, so I guess I'm just settling into the fact that I'll have to accept it."
For those who didn't make it, the sting will quickly pass. As DeMarcus notes, success isn't always measured by the number of awards you win.
"I'd rather be rich than have a trophy," he joked.
Associated Press reporter Caitlin R. King in Nashville contributed to this report.