While no one was looking, country music snuck up and caught us by surprise. Sure, we all noticed the ratings and attention that CMT was receiving, and every once in a while we'd see that a country alb

Jeff Pollack is chairman/CEO of Pollack Media Group, a Los Angeles-based radio, TV and music consulting company whose clients include Country Music Television (CMT).

While no one was looking, country music snuck up and caught us by surprise. Sure, we all noticed the ratings and attention that CMT was receiving, and every once in a while we'd see that a country album hit No. 1 on The Billboard 200, but few people put all the pieces together to detect what has become a clear trend: Country music is back.

You need to look no further than the NBA All-Star Game for confirmation. When that bastion of hip-hop culture features a halftime show with Big & Rich singing "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy," you know something is up.

So what's up? After years of stagnating album sales and declining ratings, country music is surging in popularity once again.

Other indications are all around us. Mercury artist Julie Roberts is the voice of the new "Good Morning America" promo. Not to be out "countrified," the "Today" show enlisted Phil Vassar to co-write a theme song for an upcoming segment.

One of the indications of a format's mass-appeal strength is its ability to cross artists over to other formats, and that is happening with country as well. Martina McBride, Tim McGraw and Keith Urban have all had recent success at AC radio. McGraw even saw major airplay at pop radio for his duet with Nelly.

Other examples include the recent top 10 hits on The Billboard 200 by McGraw, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Urban, Brad Paisley, McBride, Shania Twain, Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson, Rascal Flatts, Brooks & Dunn, Montgomery Gentry and LeAnn Rimes. Country has not seen this much sales success in a long time.

All of these things are bearing fruit for music-oriented media. CMT is closing in on 80 million homes with the best ratings in its history, and country radio is clearly on the rise. After falling to a low point in fall 2002 with a national 12-plus Arbitron share of 8.2, the format has consistently trended upward on the way to its current, very healthy 8.8 share. It is quite possible that country could soon hit a 9 share, a level the format hasn't achieved in almost five years.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect from the radio side is that this increase is driven mostly by 18-34 listeners. In that segment, the format is up more than a full share from where it was in fall 2001. While other contemporary formats have been struggling, country is enjoying rising fortunes with new music fans.

There are a number of reasons for country's resurgence. Perhaps the biggest is that the format is looking at possibly its best crop of new talent since the class of '89 (Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, Clint Black, etc.), with great songs and a real presence.

There is also the fact that country has always been a vibrant scene with real stars and real artists -- people with whom the listener can identify. As other formats struggle to find a name to attach to their most popular music, there is no such problem in country, where the fans know not only the lyrics to their favorite songs, but the name of the artist who sings them.

And as the NBA All-Star halftime show illustrated, country also features artists who put on compelling live performances and dynamic stage shows. Acts like McGraw, Chesney, Brooks & Dunn and Big & Rich all know how to entertain not just on record but onstage as well.

So, in the face of a lack of emotion from many quarters, country's fervor has struck a nerve. With songs about really appreciating life (McGraw and Keith), the importance of family (Lonestar, McBride), supporting the country in a time of war (Keith, Darryl Worley) and such issues as child abuse (McBride), homelessness (Craig Morgan) and domestic violence (McBride, Dixie Chicks), country is once again the format that is telling the story of our lives.

Country is in a good place right now. The format has strong artists with recognizable faces and names, compelling live performers, mass-media outlets that want their participation and an overall vibe that is in tune with the spirit of the times.