Teen Taylor Swift is up against her elders at the CMA Awards

By Brian Mansfield, Special for USA TODAY   See complete article w/ Taylor photo here.

Could a teenager really win country music’s biggest honor?

That’s the key question at the Country Music Association Awards Wednesday night (ABC, 8 ET/PT) as Taylor Swift, 19, competes for entertainer of the year against a group of guys twice her age: George Strait (57), Brad Paisley (37), Keith Urban (42) and current award-holder Kenny Chesney (41). Many members of the country music industry like Swift’s chances.

“She is pretty much the biggest ambassador of country music that we have right now,” says Marci Braun, music director at Chicago radio station WUSN.

If Swift wins, she will be the award’s youngest recipient by several years: Garth Brooks was 29 when he first won entertainer of the year in 1991, and Natalie Maines and Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks were 26 and 28, respectively, when the trio took the honor in 2000.

Swift has certainly earned her stripes at retail. Her Fearless album joins Michael Jackson‘s Number Ones as the only two albums to sell 2 million copies this year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, far outpacing the four other nominees’ album sales. The gap is even more pronounced among downloads, where Swift’s 9.78 million digital tracks exceed the combined total of the other nominees by more than 1 million.

On country radio, the pop-leaning Swift has received the least airplay of all the contenders, according to Mediabase. Factor in airplay from other formats, though, and she jumps far ahead. Her Love Story and You Belong With Me are among 2009’s 10 most-played singles – no other entertainer nominee makes the top 75.

She may be at a disadvantage, however, when it comes to touring, which usually factors heavily into CMA members’ decisions, says Pollstar editor Gary Bongiovanni.

“Kenny Chesney’s going to be the biggest ticket-seller, by far,” he says. “He’s going to have sold more than a million tickets in 2009, and he’s done a number of stadiums.”

Swift, on the other hand, just wrapped her first headlining tour last month and opened for Urban as recently as this summer.

“Taylor’s definitely the newcomer on the touring scene, compared to the guys in the group,” says David Ross, who publishes trade magazine Music Row. “However, when you add that to the record sales she’s experienced this year and all the media attention she’s getting, you’d have to say she’s a viable candidate.”

For her part, Swift is taking the speculation calmly – at least more calmly than she did the news of her nomination, which she celebrated by jumping on her mother’s bed. Noting that she has opened for every other act in the category, she says, “I just can’t believe I get to sit in the front row this year!”

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