NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- They're not letting the cowboy ride quietly into the sunset in Music City. Whether he likes it or not, the usually reclusive George Strait is the center of attention this week.
Strait is up for entertainer of the year Wednesday night at the Country Music Association Awards, which air live at 7 p.m. on ABC. Will the 6,000-plus voters reward him with his third trophy in that category or go for one of the younger nominees -- Taylor Swift, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton?
The 61-year-old singer has at least one vote.
"Of course I voted for myself," Strait said with a laugh in a rare meeting with reporters Monday. "I always vote for myself. I figure everybody does, why wouldn't I? It's such an honor. It's been a while. We had a great year, it really was a great year, and any time you get nominated for entertainer of the year, which is the award of the night, it's very, very special. I'm excited about it. I'll be very nervous that night."
Strait, the CMA's most-nominated artist, won back-to-back trophies in the category in 1989 and 1990. He was last nominated for the award in 2009.
These things usually come in batches, and voters don't often return previous winners to the stage after a significant break. Only Garth Brooks has had a wide gap between wins, taking victories in 1997 and 1998 after winning five years earlier in 1991 and 1992.
Even so, there's reason to believe Strait has a shot. First, there's not a performer in town who doesn't owe Strait some kind of debt -- and that goes for his counterparts in the category.
Each opened for Strait at some point early in their careers and each has learned part of the trade from him.
"For me George is always going to be the guy who let me open up his shows when I was 17 and it was at that point in my life the biggest break I'd gotten as far as live touring because I got to be on the George Strait tour," Swift said. "I learned so much from performing on an in-the-round stage and I think that he over the years has been so supportive, and I'll get a text every now and then from him just sort of wishing me well. He's just such a class act. He's just such an incredible example of how to be a gracious, humble, well-respected human being."
Added Bryan: "When I moved to town, I kind of wanted a career like George Strait. A long career that starts here and it's always been on George's terms. And he's always cut amazing songs and wonderful music and had a long career that you can tell looks like he's always enjoyed it. And he's always been happy."
All four of Strait's competitors in the category could take home the trophy.
Swift also is going for her third after wins in 2009 and 2011. Her album "Red" has gone platinum six times and she's reached an even higher status in the pop music world, taking country music to all corners of the globe. Another win would make her the first woman with three trophies in that category -- at age 23.
Shelton, star of "The Voice" and a recent voting favorite, is going for his second straight win after a victory in 2012 that stunned even him.
And Aldean and Bryan certainly deserve a call to the stage for the way they've helped transform the genre.
To win, they'll have to overcome the general respect for Strait's career, which is deep. Take Shelton's view of his place in music history.
"In my opinion when all is said and done," Shelton said in an email, "there will be two artists viewed as the greatest influences on country music: Hank Williams Sr. and George Strait."
Shortly before the CMA's voting period opened, billboards began to pop up in Nashville with a picture of Strait and the words "Entertainer of a lifetime." It's a title that sticks. Strait's in his fourth decade as a top draw, has a record 60 No. 1 country hits and can still sell out arenas as he's been doing on his "The Cowboy Rides Away" tour. No one -- except maybe Willie Nelson -- can claim a similar run.
"He's been around for 30-something years, and not only been around for 30 years, but been relevant to the business for 30-something years," Aldean said. "I mean, still putting out music that people love, still able to go out and sell out his shows when he tours. That just doesn't happen. ... That's why there is only one George Strait."
Strait will end his touring career next summer in Dallas after a string of dates. He recently signed a five-album deal with Universal Music Nashville to continue his recording career and has been writing songs at a high pace.
"It's going to be different because it's been my life for a long, long time," Strait said of the road. "I don't know, I've got mixed feelings about it still. When we do the last one in Dallas, it's going to be probably a little emotional. But I'm still going to do a few things, five or six things I've been thinking about doing in the next few years, but I don't think there will be a 'Cowboy Rides Back In' tour."