When it comes to surprises, the Country Music Association Awards usually don't have much to offer.
But even the staid CMA is good for the occasional twist or two, and this year's best bet might be Vince Gill, who's nominated for album of the year for his ambitious four-disc set, "These Days."
The awards are scheduled for Wednesday night in Nashville; ABC is to broadcast them live.
Gill wrote or co-wrote all the albums' 43 tracks, co-produced them, sang, played guitars and assembled a dream team of guests including Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, Diana Krall, Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris.
"These Days" earned Gill rave reviews and will certainly go down as a creative peak in his career, but it sold modestly and received scant radio airplay compared to its competitors: Brad Paisley "5th Gear," George Strait's "It Just Comes Natural," Keith Urban's "Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing" and Dierks Bentley's "Long Trip Alone."
Even though it's been a while since Gill has been a country hitmaker, he's well-respected in the industry and could surprise. A single from the album, "The Reason Why," a duet with Krauss, is also nominated for musical event of the year.
"That's not the type of music that you can mass-produce. It's very thoughtful and appealing on a number of levels and deserves to be awarded for that," said Wade Jessen, director of country charts for Billboard magazine, of the album.
Other categories to watch are female vocalist where reigning country queen Carrie Underwood and upstart Miranda Lambert are up against stalwarts Reba McEntire, Martina McBride and Alison Krauss; and vocal duo, where perennial favorites Brooks & Dunn have stiff competition from Big & Rich, Montgomery Gentry, Sugarland and the Wreckers.
Krauss, a contemporary bluegrass star, has four nominations in all even though she's not a regular on country radio. She took home the female vocalist award in 1995.
The Dixie Chicks are nominated for vocal group of the year, their first nomination since lead singer Natalie Maines' slam on President Bush in 2003, on the eve of the war with Iraq, made them country music pariahs.
"I don't think it's any indication that there's any less scorched earth between the Chicks and country radio, but I do think the reason we're seeing that nomination is that they made an excellent contemporary country record," Jessen said of the group's 2006 album, "Taking the Long Way."
Paisley and Strait are the night's two leading nominees with five apiece, including the prestigious entertainer of the year.
This year, neither the entertainer nor the album slot have a single female nominee between them.
But Ed Salamon, executive director of the Country Radio Broadcasters, warned against reading too much into who's nominated and who's not.
"I don't think you can take anything that happens in any of these categories as a bellwether other than what the individual entertainers have accomplished in the past year," Salamon said.