After lifetime of hurdles, country singer Julie Roberts ready to make music again
By Chris Richards,
A few days after country singer Julie Roberts lost her record deal, she watched her car float down the block.
The Sunday morning floodwaters had risen to the front door of her west Nashville home — a condo she shared with her mother, her sister and four dogs. She remembers the rain slashing away at the rooftop and the eeriness of watching the Mercedes she had just paid off silently wash away. She and her family ran upstairs, snacked on Cheese Nips and waited for a rescue boat.
“I had always dreamed about having a record deal and I always dreamed about having my own house — a happy house,” Roberts says. “And it was all taken away in that one week.”
It was May 2, 2010, when a crippling flash flood surprised America’s country music capital, a destination for singers hoping to transmute their hard times into gold records. For Roberts, the flood was the latest hurdle in a lifetime spent clearing them. She’d made it through a turbulent childhood, a career-threatening illness, numerous professional setbacks and, now, a natural disaster. Today, with her home refurbished, the 33-year-old is trying to rebuild her career. On Saturday, she’ll play two sets at the Rams Head in Annapolis — her first full performances outside of Tennessee since self-releasing her soulful 2011 album, “Alive.”
Roberts got her start in the music business as an assistant to the chairman of Universal Music Group Nashville, where she pulled a storybook move: Slip your demo to the boss without telling him that it’s you. If this sounds like a plot device out of a Lifetime movie, guess what? Lifetime was actually developing Roberts’s life story into a biopic in 2009.
It would open with the singer’s difficult South Carolina childhood. “We grew up in a family of alcohol and abuse,” Roberts says by phone from Nashville, “and country music was our savior, my savior. It took me away.” To Music City, where she eventually signed with Mercury Nashville. Her self-titled 2004 debut would earn respectable radio play, and her 2006 album, “Men & Mascara,” would bring critical kudos. (The latter’s title track featured the most tragic lyrical zinger of that year: “Men and mascara always run.”)
She was eager to hit the road but didn’t feel well. Onstage, mysterious shocks of pain would shoot from her spine to her skull. She’d lose her grip on the microphone when her hands suddenly went numb. She remembers skipping a studio session for a trip to the neurologist. She had multiple sclerosis diagnosed.
While Roberts coped on tour, “Men & Mascara” stalled on the charts. So when Thomas Rickman, the screenwriter for Loretta Lynn’s biopic, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” took interest in her, things were looking up. Roberts spent 2009 in Los Angeles, taking acting classes while Rickman wrangled the script into shape for Lifetime. But regime change at the network suddenly sent the project into cold storage. When word got back to Mercury, Roberts was released from her contract. “They weren’t real excited about releasing my new music without the movie,” she says.
That weekend the singer went out to dinner to try and forget about the bad news. Raindrops blurred her windshield. The next morning, “the water was rushing into our house,” she says. “It was coming up the stairs, six, maybe seven steps deep.”
After the flood, Roberts and her family settled into a temporary apartment and eventually decided to go back to repair the condo. “I spent the entire year of 2010 rebuilding my home and rebuilding my life,” she says.
She also restarted her career with “Alive,” an album in which she traffics in familiar heartbreak but delivers her lyrics with a little more fire in her lungs. The music is striking. The challenge is getting it heard.
As an independent artist learning the D.I.Y. ropes, Roberts says she enjoys the hands-on approach — “all the way down to the little UPC codes” — but concedes that it’s daunting work. “I am my marketing department,” she says. “I’m trying to find ways around my means.”
Saturday’s Rams Head show stems from a cold-call e-mail she sent the club last summer, hoping the lovely performance she gave there in 2006 would be remembered. (It was.) For Roberts, it’s another step toward winning new fans, reconnecting with old ones, maybe scoring a new record contract and hopefully getting that movie made for TV.
But first things first. “My immediate goal is to get on the road and stay on the road,” she says. “I don’t want to be gone that long again. I want to make people aware that I’m alive.”
So she keeps singing in that wounded voice, wondering if being determined is the same thing as being right.
“I’ve talked this through in my head, you know? ‘Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?’ ”
Roberts mulls it over one more time.
“I know it is. I wake up singing. I go to bed singing. Music is what I love,” she says. “And honestly, I don’t have another option.”