For what seemed like an eternity, blue-eyed country soul singer Julie Roberts sat just a few feet away from the man who could make all of her dreams come true. But she never uttered a word to him about it.
After moving to Nashville and graduating from Belmont University, Roberts took a job at Mercury Records to support herself while pursuing her goal of becoming a country singer. Unbeknownst to any of her co-workers, she spent her free time honing her songwriting skills and performing at various clubs around Music City. She spent her days as the assistant to Luke Lewis, Chairman of Universal Music Group Nashville, and her nights as a protégé of renowned producer Brent Rowan. She was always careful the two worlds never collided. "I needed to work and I was scared I was going to get fired if Luke knew," she says. "I knew my desire to be a singer was there, but I needed to be a devoted employee to him."
But as Roberts learned, you can't keep fate a secret for long. In 2003, Rowan met with Lewis to play some new songs from several artists in whom Lewis had expressed an interest. At the end of the session, Rowan played a few demos he had recorded with Roberts. Lewis said, "I want to know who this is. I want to meet this girl." Rowan said, "It's the girl right down the hall. It's your assistant."
So after an often-difficult journey that spanned several states and many years, Roberts was able to take those seemingly insurmountable final steps -- from her assistant desk to Lewis' office -- to ink a record deal that would turn her fantasy into an immediate reality. (And yes, she quit her day job in August 2003.)
Lewis was immediately sold on the music of Roberts -- an appealing blend of country and blues that both embraces country's heritage and reveals a fresh, contemporary sound. Roberts' music is where art and commerce meet. The stunning blonde, whose striking good looks are being compared to Faith Hill's, is mainstream country's answer to Norah Jones and Bonnie Raitt. Her emotion-soaked, sensuous debut CD is a stark contrast to the pop-country music that's so prevalent now. The music of Julie Roberts is raw and real, honest yet optimistic.
"I just look for lyrics that are real," she says. "That's the basis for all my songs. The lyrics have to mean something to me. When I listen for a song, I have got to know someone who has lived it or I have to have lived it myself, because I become that character for three minutes. I want every song to hit someone in some way, because they hit me."
For instance, the moment she heard the blues-drenched "Break Down Here", she knew she had to record it because it reminded her of her mother, who was moving to Nashville after divorcing Roberts' father. "She got a job here and decided to move," Roberts says. "She had a 1991 Ford Escort, so the day she left, I prayed, 'Please don't let her break down.'" Her self-titled CD also includes a cover of "Down Home", which celebrates people who keep their feet firmly planted in reality. "We open my show with that, because it just immediately shows you who I am," she says. The second single, "Wake Up Older" painfully depicts the bad choices made by a woman after being left by her lover.
Roberts, the daughter of an engineer and an accountant, grew up singing country in Lancaster, S.C. "I started singing to country songs on the radio when I was about three," she says. "Mama had this big white truck, and we would all sit in the front seat and she would turn up country music. I learned all of these old songs, like Mel McDaniel's 'Baby's Got Her Blue Jeans On'. When we hear them today I'll say, 'There's a white-truck song.'"
Roberts began performing in pre-school plays and school choirs, singing in "My Fair Lady" in a summer camp for singers. Her first public appearance, during the talent portion of the Preview Pageant, was less than auspicious. "I was singing "Rocky Top" and I burped in the first verse because I was nervous," she says. Undeterred by her flawed debut, she quickly became a pageant veteran, competing in numerous beauty contests such as Little Miss Lancaster. "You had to fill out what your ambitions were and mine was always 'to be a country music singer like Barbara Mandrell.' I would watch 'The Barbara Mandrell Show' and 'Hee Haw' with my sisters."
But like Mandrell, Roberts was country when country wasn't cool. While other kids listened to Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, she was mesmerized by Tanya Tucker, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley. Her classmates teased her incessantly about singing country music. "Mama always said, 'Julie, they are just jealous. You just keep doing what you love, and it will all work out.' So I just kept at it."
Accompanied by her mother and Aunt Crystal, she began touring regionally in junior and high school, playing festivals in North and South Carolina and Georgia (including the Flopeye Fish Festival in Great Falls, S.C.). "We would pack coolers because we couldn't eat out, and we would stop at a rest stop," she says. "It was so much fun! We'd say, 'One day we're going to be on a bus doing this.'"
Her love of the blues was sparked during her early teens, when she sang with a group of men in their 60's and 70's. They would perform monthly at two different nursing homes. "One of the men was named Oscar, and he sang old blues and I loved hearing him," she says. "I would just stare at him and really study what he did. He sang 'Peace in the Valley', but in a blues way. That's when I realized that I loved that style, and I loved his soul."
She spent four summers working in music shows at Carowinds, a theme park in Charlotte and later at Dollywood in East Tennessee. "That's when I realized I loved being onstage and playing live."
Roberts attended the University of South Carolina - Lancaster for two years, performing in bands on the side, and then transferred to Nashville's Belmont University. She quickly formed another band with a few Belmont students and played small clubs such as Harvey Washbanger's and Guido's and bigger events such as the Nashville Predators games. After graduating and working for Mercury, a friend gave a copy of her demo to Brent Rowan, who was so impressed by her talent that he started working with her right away. "What I've learned is that if one door closes or if something bad happens in your life, just stay positive and know that it happened for a reason," she says. "You don't know now, but one day down the road, you'll know why that happened." Indeed, your good luck charm may just be right down the hall.
--- from the official Julie Roberts website