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Nearing the end of a gloomy year of sagging sales, country music will toss out a confetti of pop and rock along with pickin' and fiddle playing at the industry's biggest annual award show Wednesday.

The 33rd annual Country Music Association event, beginning at 8 p.m. on Channel 4, will feature such diverse acts as old-timer Merle Haggard teamed with hot pop star Jewel in a duet and an appearance by hip-hop gyrators 'N Sync.

While the industry's biggest stars have not suffered, it has been a bad year on country's Music Row for some of the lesser lights. Cable's TNN recently announced the cancellation of three major shows that had been used to promote new talent after its new owner, CBS Cable, said it wanted to broaden TNN's base.

Overall record sales are down and many lesser-known entertainers have been dropped by their labels, or left after complaining the big stars were being promoted but not those struggling to reach the spotlight.

Even the city's Wildhorse Saloon cut down on its country fare, bringing in rockers Bachman Turner Overdrive at one point.

And in one pre-show flap, 68-year-old icon George Jones -- nominated for Single of the Year for his song "Choices" -- said he would boycott the event because producers wanted him to sing an abbreviated version of the hit tune.

Haggard and Jewel, however, will perform a full song, a duet which video producer Robert Deaton described as a move to attract "a younger demographic" audience, even though neither the song they will sing nor the two performers are up for any awards.

Vying for the top Entertainer of the Year award are Tim McGraw, Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks, George Strait and Shania Twain.

McGraw, the lanky 32-year-old son of baseball pitcher Tug McGraw, is also in the running for Male Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year, Music Video of the Year for "Just to Hear You Say That You Love Me" with wife Faith Hill, and Single of the Year for "Please Remember Me."

He also has two shared nominations -- as co-producer for his album "A Place in the Sun" and the single "Please Remember Me" along with Byron Gallimore and James Stroud.

Strait, who took male vocalist honors last year, is nominated for album and co-producer awards this year. Twain is a double nominee, for female vocalist and top entertainer.

The three-hour show will be hosted again this year by Vince Gill, whose 17 association trophies make him the event's all-time top award winner. He is a nominee this year in five categories, including male vocalist, an honor he has won for a record five consecutive years.

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