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Hail to Chief: Eric Church leads ACM nominations with 7; Hayes, Swift, Lambert close behind

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - They don't call him Chief for nothing: Eric Church is the top nominee at this year's Academy of Country Music Awards.

The rising country music star has seven nominations for the April 7 awards show in Las Vegas. Hunter Hayes is next with six, followed by Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert at five apiece.

Swift and Lambert are up for the academy's top honour — entertainer of the year — with Lambert's husband, Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan. Swift is going for her third straight win in that category.

Shelton and Bryan will co-host the broadcast, to air live on CBS from the MGM Grand.

Along with naming nominees in a series of videos online Wednesday morning, the academy also awarded trophies in the three new artist categories. Jana Kramer is the new female vocalist of the year, Brantley Gilbert is the new male vocalist winner and Florida Georgia Line took new vocal duo or group, as voted by fans. Those three acts will now compete for new artist of the year.

Fans will continue to have a say in that category and entertainer of the year. Fans can vote in those categories beginning March 25 at http://VoteACM.com.

Hayes began an incredible run on the awards show circuit with a nomination for best new artist at the ACMs last year. He didn't win, but has since has been on a streak. He won the Country Music Association's best new artist in November, was tied with Swift as the top-nominated country artist at Sunday's Grammy Awards, where he performed, and now takes centre stage in Las Vegas.

"It's amazing. That puts it in perspective," a groggy Hayes said a few minutes after his manager woke him up with the news. "I'm kind of feeling like I'm part of the family now, especially now, with this. That's such an honour, such a huge compliment. This is serious. This is for real. This says that my music's been accepted by this community and it's unbelievable — and that's one of the best feelings in the world."

Church's "Chief" is up for album of the year along with Swift's "Red," Bryan's "tailgates & tanlines," Carrie Underwood's "Blown Away" and Little Big Town's "Tornado." Jay Joyce scored a rare double in the category: He produced the Church and Little Big Town albums and will take home a trophy if either wins. He's also up for producer of the year.

"Chief," released in 2011, slipped through a loophole and into the category for the second straight year. Academy rules allow an album to be nominated outside its usual qualification period if it did the bulk of its sales during the next opening. The album reached platinum last year and currently sits at more than 1.3 million copies sold.

That album's inclusion may have cost Zac Brown Band's "Uncaged" a nomination just three days after the band took home the Grammy for best country album. Another potential nominee left off the list was Brad Paisley, who had been nominated every year since 1999.

Church also is up for male vocalist of the year with 2012 winner Shelton, Bryan, Aldean and Toby Keith. Lambert will be going for her fourth straight female vocalist of the year award with Swift, Underwood, Martina McBride and Kacey Musgraves, a newcomer who earned four nominations.

Others with four nominations include Bryan and Little Big Town. That quartet is up for vocal group of the year with Lady Antebellum, which has won the award three straight times, Zac Brown Band, Eli Young Band and The Band Perry.

Surprise 2012 vocal duo winner Thompson Square is nominated in that category again along with Sugarland, Big & Rich, Florida Georgia Line, and Love and Theft.

Church also is nominated in the song and single of the year categories for "Springsteen." Lambert's "Over You," Hayes' "Wanted," Eli Young Band's "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" and Lee Brice's "A Woman Like You" round out the song of the year category.

Lambert, EYB and Hayes join Church in the single of the year category with LBT's "Pontoon."

Like Hayes, the idea of family was on Lambert's mind. She wrote "Over You" with Shelton. It's a song Shelton's late father encouraged him to write about his brother, who died young.

"What an exciting day!" Lambert wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "Country music is a family and we're gonna have a big reunion in Las Vegas for the ACM Awards. I'm blessed every day and thrilled to be nominated, and it's extra special to be nominated with Blake for song of the year."

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Online:

http://acmcountry.com

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Follow AP Music Writer Chris Talbott: http://twitter.com/Chris_Talbott .

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