NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- The odds that Heidi Newfield would find success as a solo artist were not good.
As lead singer of the country group Trick Pony, she'd had a few hits but was by no stretch a superstar. And unlike other genres, where singers often leave established groups for successful solo careers, country has relatively few stars who've managed that course.
"I had some trepidation," Newfield said recently. "I wasn't sure if the industry would look at it as a positive and support me or say, 'She's been out there and done her thing and had her shot.'"
The industry and the fans did respond, however, and now Newfield finds herself in the unlikely position of being among the most nominated artists at Sunday's Academy of Country Music Awards, where she'll also perform during the show airing on CBS.
"This means more to me than probably anybody on earth because of the journey I've been on to get to this place," the 38-year-old singer said of her five nominations, which include female vocalist and song of the year for her hit "Johnny and June."
"To finally have the opportunity to get up there and shine. I've been waiting for that for so long," she added.
Newfield, who grew up on a horse farm in Northern California, formed Trick Pony in 1996 with Keith Burns and Ira Dean. The trio billed themselves as a high-energy contemporary act and cracked the Top 20 four times from 2000-2002, with "On a Night Like This" reaching No. 4 in 2001
But they struggled to duplicate their early success, and Newfield left in 2006. She says tensions over whose songs would be used on the albums contributed to the split.
"Add a little attitude and ego mixed with a little confidence and a tad bit of success, and you're brewing a formula for self-destruction," she said.
After leaving, Newfield began assembling her dream team of songwriters and musicians and got veteran Tony Brown (George Strait, Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn) to produce.
Her album, "What Am I Waiting For," debuted at No. 2 on the country album chart last August, and "Johnny and June" reached No. 11 in September. Her current single, "Cry Cry ('Til the Sun Shines)," continues to rise, recently entering the Top 30.
The music is more mature than Trick Pony, whose barroom anthems like "Pour Me" and rowdy stage shows that featured Dean spinning his bass guitar like baton made them a party favorite. The cover photo of Newfield with flowing blonde locks in a low-cut white dress contrasts with her denim "one-of-the-guys" image in the group.
"This is the record I've wanted to make all my life," said Newfield, who co-wrote six of the 10 cuts. "I knew who I was as an artist and it wasn't the girl who fronted Trick Pony anymore. I still have a little of that in me. That was me. But I wanted to broaden my horizons and show people that I could really sing and not cover it up with lots of hoopla and antics."
The album's most heralded track, "Johnny and June," was inspired by the relationship of the late Johnny and June Carter Cash. Co-written by Newfield, the song is nominated for the ACM's video, single and song of the year (the song category counts as two nominations: performer and composer).
"I had the opportunity to spend time with the two of them, to hear stories of how they met and what life on the road was like, to hear their banter and interaction," Newfield said of the Cashes. "I want the Cash family to look at this song and be proud of it."
David Scarlett, senior editor of Country Weekly magazine, explains Newfield's strong ACM showing as a combination of talent and savvy and a certain amount of good will she's built up over the years.
"You're not going to find anybody in this town who says anything bad about her," Scarlett said. "The fact that she's well-liked and extremely talented were hugely important.
"When Heidi left the group, she sort of regrouped in terms of gathering her thoughts and her direction and talking to songwriters and deciding what kind of album she wanted to do. She took her time and didn't rush in. She knew this was her shot, and she went about it the right way."
Come Sunday, Newfield says she'll keep things in perspective, win or lose.
"You don't do this for the accolades. You don't even do it for the money. You do it for the love of it," she said. "But when they do give you that pat on the back, it's a nod that you're on the right track."
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