Christian singer Michael W. Smith (search) led the Dove nominations (search) Monday with eight, including artist and song of the year.

The group Casting Crowns was next with seven nominations, while lead singer/songwriter Mark Hall had six individual nominations.

The Crabb Family had six nominations, and the group's patriarch, Gerald Crabb, added six of his own for his songwriting.

Switchfoot, Israel Houghton, MercyMe and Matthew West all had five each.

"I was really excited to see `Friend of God' up for song of the year," said Houghton, who helped announce the nominations with Natalie Grant and George Huff. "I write a lot of songs, but that one has had a lot of impact on me personally."

Houghton also is nominated for male vocalist with Jeremy Camp, Jackson Crabb, Mark Hall and Fernando Ortega.

"That was the biggest surprise," said Houghton. "There are some great singers in our industry. I consider myself somewhat of a singer, but not in the top five."

Smith is a perennial favorite at the Dove Awards, gospel music's version of the Grammys. This year, he is nominated for song of the year for "Healing Rain," as well as the prestigious artist of the year, pop/contemporary recorded song, pop/contemporary album and worship song.

Smith said he was surprised and grateful to receive so many nominations, especially with the emergence of many new acts in recent years.

"You'd think by now we'd pass the baton and somebody else would come up the ranks," Smith said. "At this point it's not about winning. I'd just as well like to see some of these younger artists win."

He credits his strong showing to "Healing Rain."

"I think it all boils down to a song," he said. "I knew when I wrote it, it was something special, kind of like I did with `Place In This World.' Those don't come along every day, but when they do you have a gut feeling, and most of the time it's right."

Joining Smith in the artist of the year category: Casting Crowns, MercyMe, Selah and Switchfoot.

Nominated for female vocalist: Bethany Dillon, Grant, Nicole C. Mullen, Christy Nockels and Joy Williams.

"To be nominated alongside the other girls in the category is such an honor," Grant said afterward.

New artist nominees: BarlowGirl, Building 429, Day of Fire, Bethany Dillon and Matthew West.

Casting Crowns, The Crabb Family, MercyMe, Selah and Switchfoot are up for group of the year.

"This year's slate of Dove nominees once again demonstrates that gospel music knows no musical boundaries," said John Styll, president of the Gospel Music Association. "The nominees share a common faith, while their music is expressed in many diverse ways."

The Doves will be awarded April 13 at the Grand Ole Opry House.