If you are a fan of the too-often underrated Julie Roberts, you may have bene intrigued by the announcement that she had written a memoir.
The book opens with Julie at the peak of her commercial success, performing on stage while promoting her debut album, only to be struck down with what were to prove to be the first signs of multiple sclerosis. After that first chapter, we dart back in time to a dramatic midnight escape by the five year old Julie, her sisters and their mother, from Julie’s drunken, abusive father. Regrettably, the family would return, and the pattern repeated on more than one occasion. Perhaps the most poignant anecdote in the book is Julie’s recollection that her mother viewed Martina McBride’s hit single ‘Independence Day’ as aspirational.
The story then moves briskly through Julie’s childhood, a few pageant competitions and community college, before she won the Vince Gill Scholarship to Belmont University in Nashville, where she was able to hone her performing skills. After college Julie encouraged her mother to pluck up the courage to leave abusive dad and get a job and new life in Nashville. The story of her winning her record deal anonymously while working as a receptionist at Mercury Records is already well known, and gets a slightly fuller airing here.
The most interesting part of the book for me were the behind the scenes stories of Julie’s recording career, especially around making and promoting her first album. Shockingly, the label put her on so severe a diet, she was permitted only 800 calories a day, combined with intensive boot camp gym. They tried to do the same to Jamey Johnson, and you may not be surprised to learn he was less willing to cooperate than Julie, declining to participate further after a single gym visit. She talks briefly about sexual harassment in the industry, mostly on a fairly low level, but still disturbing.
After Julie’s big hit single ‘Break Down Here’ and acclaimed debut album, her star rather fizzled. She was forced against her own wishes to split with Brent Rowan, the producer of her first album in favour of someone the label thought would be more commercial. She was not happy about recording a pop cover unsuited to her own style. She spent some time in California pursuing a movie which was supposed to be inspired by her life, and starring herself, but the loss of focus on music was to prove fatal. The movie project was shelved until she was a bigger star – and she lost her record deal because they had been pinning their hopes on the movie raising her profile.
It is back to more drama with an intense account of the 2010 Cumberland River floods, when Julie lost all her material goods. At least she, her mother and sister, and their pet dogs were all rescued; she shared the rescue boat with a man who had to leave his dog behind because he was too big.
Her MS diagnosis did not help her with potential record labels, but she has worked hard at continuing her music career. She is frank about the commercial disaster which was her deal with Sun Records, arranged by a boyfriend. Intriguingly, she speaks about a new album produced recently by Shooter Jennings – hopefully this will emerge soon.
Music of the book focusses on Julie’s emotional struggle after getting MS, her gradual acceptance of it, and work as a spokesperson for others with the disease. It is also imbued with Julie’s Christian faith, and this is almost as much a religious testimonial as it is a music business memoir. The book is well written by Julie with the help of ghost writer Ken Abraham, and although quite short, is an absorbing read.