LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Heidi Newfield goes into Sunday's Academy of Country Music Awards with five nominations. It's more than any other female, but she still considers herself the dark horse -- and in many ways, she is, especially since she's up for top female vocalist against such heavyweights as Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift.
Heidi Newfield says she considers herself an underdog at Sunday's Academy of Country Music Awards.
For 10 years, Newfield was the lead singer of the honky-tonk trio Trick Pony. Her soulful debut solo album, "What Am I Waiting for," was released in August to stellar reviews -- many from critics who scoffed at the high-energy antics of her former band.
If you spend any time with the petite blonde from Northern California, you're struck by how many times she says, "Please" and "Thank you." There's a smile for everyone -- waiters, doormen, cameramen -- and she steers conversation away from herself to ask how others are doing.
Newfield is a nice girl. But her life changed when a fellow musician told her to stop being so nice, as she revealed in the following interview with CNN: Watch Newfield talk about her nominations »
CNN: What went through your head when you received five nominations for this year's Academy of Country Music Awards?
Heidi Newfield: I thought one or two would be so fabulous, that would be so great. And they kept calling my name, and you know, I won't lie -- I'm going to tell on my husband -- the tears started flowing, and we were just really happy. All the hard work, all the time, and all the road -- and just the experience over time starts to play back in your mind, just like a movie.This is a really special time.
CNN: Was it validation that leaving Trick Pony was the right thing to do?
Newfield: People tell you, "You can't do this." You know in country music oftentimes it does not work when a front person leaves a group. In other genres -- pop, rock, hip-hop and rap -- people can leave all the time and do amazing things on their own. Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Sting -- there's a gazillion people. But in country, we have that tight-knit, almost family relationship with our fans, so when you change something up, they don't always like that very much.
CNN: Did you feel guilty about leaving Trick Pony?
Newfield: No, not an ounce of guilt. I left Trick Pony with my head held high. I felt like I left with total dignity and class, and I didn't leave anybody hanging.
I fulfilled every obligation, no matter how hard it was -- and it was hard. There was a lot of drama, and they weren't exactly happy with me. I don't mind saying this, but it was miserable the last several months. But my intuition was saying it's time to make a change.
So did I stay too long? I don't know. I mean, everything happens for a reason. Had I left three years ago, maybe I wouldn't have been the same person I am today.
CNN: John Popper from Blues Traveler kind of gave you a kick in the pants.
Newfield: Oh, I love Poppy! We talk all the time, I kid you not. John was on a USO tour with us for 2½ weeks, so we got to know each other really well. Every night, he would come on stage and do a [harmonica] number with me.
On the last night of the tour, we were in Germany, and we were at this pub, and Poppy said to me, "You love this, and it's clear you're a musician -- but you need to learn to stop being so nice. You need to speak your mind and step up and step up for yourself." His actual words were, "When you learn to be a b----," that's what he told me.
And I thought, "Well, my philosophy is I don't think you ever, ever, ever have to be a diva or a prima donna to make it to a certain level." I think you can always treat people with respect and be nice, and I always plan on doing that.
But what he said was right. When you start to believe in yourself, that's when there's no limit to what you can do.
CNN: Your debut solo album, "What Am I Waiting for," shows a lot of growth. It's much more introspective and mature, whereas Trick Pony's music was brash and not as multidimensional.
Newfield: When my producer Tony Brown and I first sat down to talk about making this album, one of the first things that came out of his mouth was, "We have to show people who you really are. We need to cut songs, and you need to explore parts of your vocals that you never got a change to showcase." All the ACM nominations are validation that we are on the path to doing just that and being taken seriously as an artist -- as a singer, as a songwriter and as a musician. We made a record that made people say, "Hey, this girl can sing." And that's what I had always hoped.
CNN: Still, it's a building process, and in a lot of ways, you're starting from scratch.
Newfield: At this one fair that I went to, they had my name spelled H-e-d-y instead of H-e-i-d-i. Hedy Newfield. And I thought, "Oh, that's just great." And, of course, you go up to the promoter and say, "Come on, hook a sister up here." So we're fixing that.
CNN: Of the five awards you're up for at the ACMs, you have to be most thrilled about top female vocalist. [Newfield is up against Underwood, Swift, Lee Ann Womack and Miranda Lambert.)
Newfield: I'm the biggest dark horse ever. I'm the big underdog, but I like to be the underdog. I hope the makeup's rockin'. I hope I look good at that moment when they call out, "Carrie Underwood."