NEW YORK — They flock to Nashville with hopes of becoming the next big thing in country music, getting day jobs at record labels and keeping their clandestine night gigs under tight wraps from their co-workers. They dream and wait and, finally, move on.

Three years ago, Julie Roberts began this country star-in-waiting protocol. Only she made it.

This story first appeared in the June 8, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“It is busy, but if I weren’t busy, I’d be at home eating,” Roberts professes of the recent hype, including the release of her self-titled debut album and the premiere of her behind-the-scenes CMT TV show, “In the Moment,” last month, along with spots on “Good Morning America” last week and “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on Thursday.

And it’s only been nine months since she left her day job as assistant to the chairman of Universal Music Group, Luke Lewis.

But reaching for the limelight was risky business. While still attending Belmont University in Nashville, Roberts was clued in on the city’s unspoken rule: Musicians working for record labels should keep the two worlds far apart.

“You’re here to work for other artists and it’s kind of a conflict of interest, so I didn’t tell anybody [at work about my music],” the 25-year-old Roberts says.

So at night, she and her band played laundromats, pizza joints — “places that no one at the record company would go,” says the effervescent Roberts. “We would play sometimes for one or two people — sometimes for just ourselves,” she laughs. “We did it because we loved it and it helps you grow.”

Producer Brent Rowan got hold of Roberts’ demo CD

and her evenings quickly turned into recording sessions. At the end of 2002, in a meeting with Roberts’ boss, Lewis (“a meeting I actually booked on Luke’s calendar,” Roberts giggles), Rowan played the songs he’d worked on with her — at first refusing to give Lewis the name of the artist — and by the second song, the chairman was ready to meet the mystery girl, not realizing it was his assistant who had the pure classic country voice.

Roberts began recording May 2003 and, in August, finally retired from answering phones, but not before training a replacement — “and the new girl does not sing!” she declares.

Nowadays, the Lancaster, S.C., native is being introduced to a whole new world, including a fashion smorgasbord. At the American Apparel and Footwear Association’s American Image Awards here last month, Roberts performed her single, “Break Down Here,” in a Diane von Furstenberg dress, Carlos Santana shoes and Fortunoff accessories.

Roberts is also “a huge fan” of Patricia Field. “I actually got to sit beside her at the Image Awards,” she squeals. “She’s just a genius.”

On less formal occasions, however, the chanteuse often adorns her Yanük and Joie jeans with her favorite shoes: Stella McCartney heels. “I always wear heels because they make me look taller,” the 5-foot 2-inch artist admits.

But, amidst the designer clothes and record deals, Roberts never forgets what got her here in the first place: her music. “Nothing else will make me happy, and that’s what kept my drive and helped me be patient,” she says. “It takes persistence and you keep working at it, because if you don’t work, you learn it’s not going to be given to you. You have to go after it.”

— Lisa Kelly

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