As dozens of limos sit idling, waiting in line to reach the red carpet at the New York City 2005 premiere of Walk the Line, a security guard approaches a black SUV and asks the chauffeur, "Who is being dropped off?"
"Julia Roberts," the driver jokingly replies.
The guard takes the bait. "We've got Julia Roberts in this car," he announces, thinking country singer Julie Roberts from South Carolina is really the Academy Award-winning actress. "Get her to the front of the line!"
By the time the country singer, a five-foot-one blonde, steps from her car, it's too late to do anything but welcome her to the event.
It's hard to make a name for yourself when you're from tiny Lancaster, South Carolina, let alone when your name is so close to someone else who's famous. Roberts has been aware of the similarity for as long as she can remember. It's kind of a not-so-inside joke. She recently posted a photo of herself on Instagram holding a small "Julia" truckstop license plate. "I get it every day, but I don't mind," Roberts says. "Sometimes it works out in my favor."
Since Roberts' self-titled debut album came out in 2004, she's hit so many stumbling blocks that any bit of recognition helps, especially in an industry known for chewing up fresh-faced, bright-eyed musicians and spitting them out in a heap. Roberts was primed for country stardom when, in 2006, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In 2010, she abandoned a movie project and left her major label record deal only to lose everything she owned in a Tennessee flood months later. It's enough to make most people give up, but Roberts is not most people. She's persevered through every calamity to become stronger and more independent as she returns to the road, performing at the Neighborhood Theatre on May 4 in support of her self-released 2011 album, Alive.
Growing up just south of the N.C./S.C. border, Roberts sang wherever and whenever she could, including summer gigs at Carowinds. She landed an executive assistant job at Mercury Records in Nashville after graduating from Belmont University with a business administration degree. She signed a multi-record deal with the label after her boss heard her demo tape. Roberts' debut went gold and her follow-up, 2006's Men & Mascara, reached No. 4 on Billboard's country chart.
While on the road in support of Mascara, Roberts noticed she had trouble gripping the microphone and her vision became blurry when she signed autographs. Doctors found 11 lesions on her brain. She hasn't let multiple sclerosis affect her life: She chooses to keep it under control through diet and exercise instead of medications.
"They like me to get scans every six months — the last time they found one more lesion," Roberts says. "Rest is the key for me. It's definitely manageable and I feel very fortunate. I could start taking medication, but I don't think my case is nearly as bad as what other people are going through."
With her health under control, Roberts began writing and recording a third album for Mercury in 2009. In the process, she moved to Hollywood to work on a biopic for Lifetime with Coal Miner's Daughter writer Thomas Rickman. Constant executive changes at the television network put her idea on hold. With three years since her last album, she tired of constantly re-pitching her story to the same network. She wanted to get back to music. So she got herself our of the record deal and headed back to Nashville.
Five months after she returned home, Tennessee's second-largest city was hit by devastating floods. The waters washed away her just-paid-off Mercedes and destroyed her home and belongings. She was lucky to escape with her mom, sister, four dogs ... and a broken ankle.
For Roberts, two years after flood, the cliche is true — what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. She's made two payments on her new car. Her townhome is restored thanks to a second mortgage. Her dining room table is a donation from the band Point of Grace. All are regular reminders of what she's been through.
Roberts put together a management team and learned the ins and outs of creating her own label, Ain't Skeerd. "I always dreamed of having a record deal and (leaving Mercury) was a hard decision to make, but I decided it was better to go on my own," she says. "I feel like I really know my business now. Nobody's telling me what to record or what picture to put on my CD. The shows I'm doing now, I want them to be in theaters so I can share stories about my songs and why they mean something to me. I love being able to talk to an audience like they're in my living room."
That traditional approach is also infused in her music. She's more Tammy Wynette than Taylor Swift. And while Roberts has a new song called "NASCAR Party," she no longer sees herself as strictly country. She covers Otis Redding at her concerts and plans to infuse more soul and gospel on her next album, which she hopes to release this fall.
"I think my movie wasn't made because I still had other things to live through to make it a more interesting story," Roberts says. "We're pitching my story to different networks. I had to rebuild my music career as an independent artist." And how's that broken ankle? "It's fine these days — I ran a 50K trail run and wear heels at my shows."
As David Allan Coe might say: If that ain't country, I'll kiss your ass.
With Birds and Arrows. $20; $30 Gold Circle. May 4. 8 p.m. Neighborhood Theatre. www.neighborhoodtheatre.com.