in Beijing.

Rich, who is one of the show's judges, would have leaped at a chance to be part of such a program while trying to get his career off the ground.

"This is a real good opportunity for somebody to not only become a country-music star, but to become an American music star," Rich says during an interview in early May to promote the summer series. "Country music [has] absolutely the most diverse audience out there. All the radio stations play everything from Patsy Cline to Big & Rich. It's all one thing. It's red and yellow, black and white.

"It really is America's music. You know, country music hasn't been represented at this level like it's going to be on NBC for over 20 years."

If country music is that big, then why has this show been on cable while a program like "American Idol" has become a national phenomenon on the Fox network?

Rich blames network executives for the slow recognition of country music.

"I think country music had been typecast and stereotyped as country and western music. Every time I hear somebody say that, I want to go slam my head into a brick wall. It hasn't been country and western music since Bob Wills stopped making records in the 1940s and '50s. It's country music. It's music for the country," Rich says.

It's music that doesn't come and go in a flash, he says. Rich predicts the winner of this round of competition will have a career that lasts for decades.

"It's not over when you hit 30 years old in country music. You're just getting started," Rich says.

Singer Jewel and songwriter Jeffrey Steele join Rich as judges, with Billy Ray Cyrus as host. *