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Gill to host awards show . . . again

Eleven times is not enough for Vince Gill. The country-music superstar again will display his easygoing humor and seemingly effortless imitation of a traffic cop for the 12th consecutive year as he returns tonight to host the CMA Awards.

CBS will broadcast the Country Music Association's 37th annual celebration live from the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville. Toby Keith leads this year's pack of nominees with seven CMA bids, followed by four each for Brooks & Dunn (who perform at the St. Pete Times Forum on Friday night), Brad Paisley and Johnny Cash.

Besides those stars, others slated to perform on the show are Shania Twain, George Strait, Martina McBride, Kenny Chesney, Patty Loveless and _ in duets _ Dolly Parton and multiple Grammy winner Norah Jones, and Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett. One segment of the three-hour telecast will honor country legend Cash, who died in September.

Gill's 18 CMA Awards make him the winner of more of the honors than any other artist, one reason he's glad to say "yes" whenever he gets the call to preside over the ceremony.

"I've always felt that my role is to try to make everybody else look good," Gill muses, "to just throw in a couple of jokes here and there and not try too hard.

"I've never had any expectations for what kind of job I would do in that role. I've just always been comfortable doing it. If you start trying to write funny things and try to be another Billy Crystal, you're going to die an ugly death."

In being himself at the CMAs, Gill always goes with the moment, as with Shania Twain's big night of wins several years ago after critics carped that she wasn't a true country artist. Gill's on-air remark? "Well, that ought to shut 'em up."

Such instances support Gill's theory that he's just one of the guys at the CMA Awards. "I don't go out there thinking, "How many millions of people are watching this on TV?' I go out and take a look at the crowd and say to myself, "OK. I know her, I know him and I know them.' First and foremost, I'm concerned about serving that audience, and I hope that translates to television. Over the years, it seems to have."

Viewers' acceptance of Gill as CMA host is linked, he feels, to their acceptance of country music itself. "Throughout the '90s, it was really on fire, selling millions of records," he reflects. "That was a great stretch of time to be a part of country, but I wish my contemporaries could really get a grasp of what it must have been like earlier, even in the '30s and '40s.

"There was no television to showcase the music, so ours was a culture of listening to things rather than watching things. How many millions of people must have tuned into the radio? To be at the Grand Ole Opry House, and to get a sense of what went on there before, makes me somewhat reverent."

Gill has the same esteem for Johnny Cash, who he says was "maybe more respected by performers in every genre than anyone else in the history of music . . even more than Elvis. Johnny had the "Man in Black' thing going 40 years before it became fashionable, but there was always so much integrity in his songwriting. He may have been the best communicator of all time. Even at the end of his life, he was able to get one more song out there (Hurt, a CMA Awards nominee for Music Video of the Year) and it said, "Hey, everybody, this is what art is really like.' "

Also the owner of a country-record 15 Grammy Awards, Gill is gearing up to go on the road with his wife, fellow music star Amy Grant.

Their Christmas-themed concert tour is likely to incorporate a tune or two from Gill's most recent album (Next Big Thing). However the musical menu plays out, he's happy simply to spend some quality time with his spouse _ even if it happens in front of thousands of fans.

"In the 3{ years we've been together, this year is the most we've ever been apart. With five kids between us, and school and work schedules, trying to keep everybody satisfied often doesn't leave a lot of time for us to be together. We've made it part of our plan, though, to find a way."