Half a hoagie lies on the kitchen counter in the break room of a recording studio. Now that he's back on the charts, Steve Wariner doesn't have the luxury of a lunch hour.

"I'm already clicking at a pretty good pace," said Wariner, who is promoting the new CD "Burnin' the Roadhouse Down," his first vocal album in five years."Garth saw me the other day," Wariner said. "He said, `It's fun out here in this fast lane, isn't it?' I've had three years of just laying low."

That's Garth Brooks, country music superstar and one-time Wariner opening act. Brooks helped bring his friend back into the limelight by releasing Wariner's song "Longneck Bottle" as a single and taking Wariner along to play it with him on "The Tonight Show."

In recent months, Wariner's talents as writer and/or performer have been evident on No. 1 hits by Clint Black ("Nothing But the Taillights") and Anita Cochran ("What If I Said"). And he co-wrote Bryan White's recent single, "One Small Miracle." Most reassuring to Wariner is his own "Holes in the Floor of Heaven" single, which is leaping up the charts.

Not bad for a guy whose last solo hit was in 1994 and whose record company was reluctant to issue another album.

"I think the timing could not be better," Wariner said. "People are ready now to hear someone that's a little more experienced. Some of the new artists can't sing about `Holes in the Floor of Heaven,' " which is a meditation on death.

"But I can. I'm 43 and I don't mind being 43 and the fact that I've got two kids and I'm singing about my family."

Wariner, a native of Noblesville, Ind., got his start in Nashville as bassist for Dottie West in the 1970s. He scored his first hit, "Your Memory," in 1980 and had 10 No. 1 hits from 1981 to 1989.

But he never sold many albums, recording through the years for RCA, MCA and Arista. His sole gold album (indicating sales of more than 500,000) was "I Am Ready" on Arista in 1991. Follow-up album "Drive" sold poorly and wasn't received well by radio programmers.

"In Steve's case, we had been told `No' by radio several times in a row," said Tim DuBois, who runs the Nashville office of Arista.

"Once a promotion staff has that history with an artist, it's sometimes hard, regardless of the song, to reinstill that confidence and that enthusiasm and that willingness to charge up the hill."

Wariner's contract with Arista ended after "Drive," but he remained on the label's roster. The company put out a Wariner album of guitar instrumentals in 1996, "No More Mr. Nice Guy," but was reluctant to release a new vocal album.

"I just really felt like it was time to step away, instead of being nudged away by the industry," Wariner said.

He concentrated on writing, expanded his home recording studio and spent time with wife Caryn and sons Ryan, 14, and Ross, 11.

When he flew with Brooks to Los Angeles to tape "The Tonight Show," Wariner played some of his new material. Brooks asked if he was interested in signing with his record label, Capitol, and a deal soon followed.

"I still read my letters," Brooks said. "To this day, there's only two names that are always mentioned in those letters. If it's not George Strait, it's Steve Wariner. So George Strait's doing extremely fine. I couldn't believe Steve wasn't out there on the active list."

Wariner is overflowing with new material, enough for his next three albums. And he's still getting other singers to do his material. Most recently, Collin Raye recorded one called "Make Sure You Got it All."

In retrospect, taking a break and writing a bunch of hits for other singers was the perfect strategy for Wariner.

"It looks like a big master plan, but it all just sort of worked out that way," he said.

Elsewhere in country music . . .

Comedian Jeff Foxworthy will be host of the TNN Music City News Country Awards, voted by fans. It airs June 15 on The Nashville Network and will be syndicated live to radio stations by Westwood One radio.