As is often the case, the artists left off the CMA Awards ballot are as interesting as the musicians included in this year's nominees announcement.

The categories are determined by members of the Country Music Association. That includes radio and music industry professionals, like record label employees and deejays. It's not a fan vote, which is important to remember. Every year, a handful of artists are left quietly grumbling about Nashville politics, and there is something to be said for that conspiracy theory.

The crowning of a new generation of country superstars continues in 2012, as the artists who dominated five years ago are mostly left fighting for a good seat instead of major hardware. One won't find George Strait, Kenny Chesney or Brad Paisley in the Male Vocalist of the Year category. Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton are the new normal. Chesney and Paisley did get Entertainer of the Year nods, as did Taylor Swift, Aldean and Shelton. There is nothing too jaw-dropping about the nominees for the night's biggest award.

Kelly Clarkson's inclusion in the Female Vocalist of the Year category has to be the biggest shock. Yes, she's a superstar, but her greatest country success thus far has been as a partner to Aldean, Reba McEntire and (on stage) Shelton or Miranda Lambert. The country remix of 'Mr. Know It All' only flirted with the Top 20. Surely other female artists have done better than that in 2012 (Jana Kramer is verging on Top 5 currently, Faith Hill's 'Come Home' reached No. 26)? Brian Mansfield of USA Today is spot on when he quips that it's a good thing Lady Gaga's country mix of 'Born This Way' never caught fire.

The snub of the year goes to Rascal Flatts, who were left off the ballot for Group of the Year, a category they dominated for years. In the past, bands like Alabama, Trick Pony and Lonestar rounded out this group of five  after they'd offered anything new to country fans or radio. In recent years, Group of the Year has become the most contested award. Lady Antebellum, Zac Brown Band, the Band Perry, Little Big Town, Eli Young Band… it's difficult to make an argument for any one of these bands to be replaced by Gary LeVox and company.

Eric Church leads all other country nominees with five, including Album, Song and Single of the Year, as well as Male Vocalist and Music Video of the Year nods. 'Springsteen' should battle Lambert's 'Over You' for Song of the Year. One wonders if the power of Church's music can overcome his sharp tongue, however. Both 0-5 and 5-5 are real possibilities for Church on Nov. 1.

The final surprise, in our opinion, is in the New Artist of the Year category. Lee Brice has had a great year, creating both a song ('A Woman Like You') and album ('Hard2Love') worthy of bigger award nominations. He's been releasing singles since 2007, however. How can he still be a new artist? Hunter Hayes couldn't even drive a car when Brice arrived in Nashville. Love and Theft were just forming -- as a trio! One has to pull for him, as he's worked as hard as anyone to receive this recognition, but also because his inclusion in this category in 2013 would border on embarrassing.

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