With her deep, blues-soaked voice that poignantly captures the pain of the wronged and forgotten, Julie Roberts quickly became a favorite of the fans and fickle music critics alike.
Entertainment Weekly awarded her 2004 self-titled debut CD an 'A', calling it "one of the most auspicious debuts in years." The New York Times said Roberts' aching and resolute hit, "Break Down Here," was "one of the year's best country ballads." Spotting her talent early, CMT selected Roberts to be the first artist ever to appear in In the Moment, the music network's hour-long documentary on the making of a star.
The album was certified gold and led to two Horizon Award nominations from the Country Music Association, as well as a Top New Artist nomination and a Top New Female Vocalist nomination from the Academy of Country Music Awards, as well as a Breakthrough Artist nomination from the CMT Awards. She delivered two memorable performances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and was chosen over artists in all musical genres to sing the "Good To Go" theme song of the television show Good Morning America. "It's been amazing," she says of her success. "We've played so many places and I've been to so many places. But I haven't really had time to sit back and reflect on all we've done."
With her debut CD, Roberts was country music's Cinderella, a stunning blonde from Lancaster, S.C., who stole everyone's heart with her honest music, cover-girl looks, exuberant personality and irresistible laughter. And now with her second album, Men & Mascara, Roberts proves she's in it for the long run.
Men & Mascara, produced by Byron Gallimore (Lee Ann Womack, Faith Hill), is an impressive collection of songs certain to stand the test of time. After touring non-stop for two years, Roberts has honed her signature vocal style and developed a newfound confidence that she unleashes on her sophomore release. That self-assurance allowed her to rise to the level of Gallimore's musical direction, which included twice the number of musicians as her first album and introduced the fiddle to Roberts' music, as well as more steel guitar and mandolin.
"It shows my maturity as an artist vocally and artistically, because I wrote on it," says Roberts, who co-penned four songs - First To Never Know, Smile, A Bridge That's Burning and All I Want. "I think it's a step up, the next step."
In terms of musical progression, it's more of the same, only better. "I've been getting a great response to my first record on the road, people singing my songs and telling me, 'Don't change your next record much. We love it.' So I knew I wanted it to be a lot of the same," she says. "My mindset didn't change that much. I started looking for songs that meant something to me, just like I did for my first album. Every lyric I sing has to mean something to me."
Roberts admits the abundance of critical acclaim she enjoyed from her debut CD became a double-edged sword because she was concerned about living up to such high expectations. "You still worry about that, but this is the best that I could have done, and I am not worried," she says.
If early reaction is any indication, continued success is what's in store for Roberts this year. The clever title track is generating industry buzz for its fresh look at two staples in a woman's life. Bob Oermann calls it "captivating in the extreme. The song is an earthy, gal-talk masterpiece." "I listen to a lot of songs while driving in the car," Roberts says. "One day I was looking at the titles to see which ones I wanted to listen to first and it was the first one on the CD. I thought, 'That's a really neat title; I want to listen to that,' and it just shook me. The hook of the song is, 'Men and mascara always run.' It hit me immediately and it has ever since. We've played it out and girls love it."
Another crowd favorite is one of Roberts' own compositions, First To Never Know. "When we sing that one out, it's great because people know the chorus and they yell out the cities." Too Damn Young vividly captures a woman's reflections on losing her virginity, while All I Want is a heartbreaking song inspired by a friend of Roberts, whose soul mate was killed in a tragic accident. "When we wrote this song, that is what I was thinking about," she says. "That is why that song is so special to me."
There's a stark contrast between the sadness depicted in Roberts' music and the joy she experiences onstage and in real life. "It's two different sides that I can't explain because I am really happy and excited about being out on the road, but I am drawn to those songs," she says. "I enjoy writing sad songs. If somebody brings in a happy idea, I like them if they are not too, too happy. Sometimes I'll say, 'That is just too happy for me.'"
The daughter of an engineer and accountant, Roberts has been singing as long as she can remember. She performed at every opportunity, including class musicals, summer camp productions and beauty pageants. During junior high and high school, she spent her weekends playing festivals in the Southeast. She spent summers working at music shows in Carowinds, a theme park in Charlotte, N.C., and Dollywood in East Tennessee.
She attended the University of South Carolina-Lancaster for two years before transferring to Nashville's Belmont University to focus on her music. She performed in local clubs and restaurants until graduation, after which she landed a job as the assistant to Luke Lewis, Co-Chairman of Universal Music Group Nashville. Without telling any of her co-workers, she began working during her off-time with producer Brent Rowan, who eventually played Roberts' demo to Lewis without telling him who it was. Floored by the demo, Lewis asked to meet the singer, so Rowan directed the surprised music executive to the young woman sitting just outside his door.
Many doors have opened for Roberts since, forever changing the life of the petite blonde who has fond memories of singing along to the country songs blaring out of the radio in her mother's white truck. She's learned a tremendous amount about life and herself on this remarkable journey, from white trucks to red carpets. As she walked across some of the nation's most famous stages and rolled down the backroads to too-often forgotten small towns, she's learned that it's the sojourn she relishes, more than the final destination.
"I'm happiest on the road," she says. "That is my salvation and people get that when they come to my shows. I love playing; that is what I have always loved. I make out my set list before the show and I think about where I'm playing and who I am playing for. We change the set list every night, most of the time."
"It's what I dreamed about my whole life. When I step on the bus and into that back room, something comes over me. Every time Luke Lewis sees me, he says, 'Are you still having fun? You've got to like it, Julie; it's your life.' And I do. I'm having the time of my life."