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It was the biggest thing to happen in Marion. Ind., since the high school basketball team won back-to-back state championships in the mid-'70s. People in the rural town of 32,000 expect to see a church bustling with activity on a Sunday morning—but by noon on June 27, it became apparent that something was brewing at St. James Lutheran Church, and, as one resident said, "this wasn't just a typical small-town wedding." Five tour buses and three stretch limos pulled up near the Grant County Courthouse. When the doors opened, such celebrities as Susan Sarandon and her longtime mate, Tim Robbins, stepped out. Sarandon would say later that "we were all coming in from everywhere, like Noah's ark."

Maybe, but the bride and groom were each definitely one of a kind. Karen Bostic Weaver, the Grant County court clerk in Marion, will long remember going into the lead bus to get the marriage license signed. Sitting right there was Lyle Lovett, the country crooner whose post-modern pompadour has been compared, favorably, to a "thatch of nuclear-radiated alfalfa sprouts." And next to him? A more-than-pretty woman with cascading tawny curls, chestnut brown eyes and a blinding smile. "Are you the real Julia Roberts?" Weaver asked. After she got a polite "Yes" from the actress—along with the required proof that Roberts, besides being beautiful and talented, had also been immunized against German measles—Weaver went back into the world with the news that the newly-weds-in-waiting were truly "nice people. I was very impressed but not awestruck," she said later. "I was awestruck when I met Dan Quayle."

The rest of the world merely felt like Quayle in his first clueless days as a vice presidential candidate. From Klein, Tex. (where Lovett was raised and still parks his black pickup truck), to Vienna, Austria (where former Roberts fiancé Kiefer Sutherland was filming The Three Musketeers), people reacted to the news of the wedding—which had been pulled together in 72 hours in a town that happened to fall conveniently between stops on Lovett's summer concert tour—with a collective and disbelieving...HUH!? Could it be that Roberts, after a history of romances with actors, was, at 25, really settling down with the self-effacing 35-year-old composer of such darkly humorous love meditations as "She's Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To" and "Once Is Enough" ("I used to be so much more open-minded/ I used to like to fall in love/ And they tell me I was so much sweeter and kinder/ But once is enough")?

Just as when Mount St. Helens erupted and the Soviet Union collapsed, people came forward with theories. "I think Julia's tired of the Hollywood pretense," said country star Tanya Tucker, a friend of Lyle's. "Maybe she's ready to be treated like a goddess, the way Lyle will." Susan Sarandon's younger brother Terry Tomalin, a sportswriter for Florida's St. Petersburg Times who was summoned from a fishing tournament to attend the nuptials, said (in an allusion to Julia's Smyrna, Ga., roots) that the marriage was "a private matter between a consummate Southern gentleman and a consummate Southern belle." And Memphis concert promoter Bob Kelley, noting that both Lovett and Roberts are long and lanky, said, "Well, tall people like tall people, I guess."

But it was Don Ganter, owner of the Dixie Chicken in College Station, Tex., where Lovett earned a journalism degree from Texas A&M University in 1980, who spoke for most folks. Ganter remembers the singer as a "skinny kid, bashful and sensitive." When he heard about the wedding, Ganter said, "I felt like I was standing in the street and had a semi truck run over me."

The truth is, Lovett and Roberts have been traveling full tilt down love's highway. The conventional wisdom is that they met during the filming of The Player, a star-studded 1992 spoof of the movie business in which they both played cameo parts. But several people, including Allison Inman, 23—Lovett's sweetheart for three years—say that Lyle and Julia never hooked up in Hollywood, since they shot their scenes on different days. "Lyle and I were looking forward to seeing her, we were like stargazing," says Inman. "But we were gone the day she shot her scene." No, it seems that the newlyweds had been seeing each other seriously for a grand total of three or four weeks—or about as long as it might take Lovett, an extremely meticulous man who has a reputation for being a kind of Seinfeld of the Sunbelt, to pick out a necktie. "I'm proud of the old guy, because I've never seen him do anything spontaneous," says Inman. "I have to applaud a woman who can get him to do something like that." She and Lyle broke up earlier this year, Inman says, partly because, despite their best efforts, they couldn't quite reconcile their very different lives. "I'm not comfortable with the showbiz scene," she says. "I couldn't handle everything that went along with it. So it's good for him and Julia to find each other, to have somebody who understands. Lyle must be beside himself. I really want him to be happy, because he's a wonderful person."

But if the courtship wasn't conventional, the wedding, in most ways, was. With Julia's mother, Betty Motes, an acting teacher still living in Georgia, ensconced pertly in the second pew, the ceremony started promptly at 3 on a steamy afternoon. Julia's maid of honor was her sister, Lisa, 27, an actress, who flew in from New York City. (Roberts's father, Walter, died when she was 10; the only key family member missing was Julia's actor brother, Eric.)

The bride, who was on weekend leave from filming The Pelican Brief in Washington, D.C., had five attendants, including Sarandon and other close friends. Dressed eclectically in whatever outfits they could pull together on short notice, they marched down the aisle of the sparsely furnished church to the organ strains of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."

Then the cellist segued stirringly into the "Wedding March," and Julia—preceded by two flower girls—entered on the arm of her longtime friend, actor Barry Tubb, 30, carrying white roses. She wore a simple, unadorned white dress (size small) by Commes des Garçons that Lovett himself had bought for a reported $2,000, and a floor-length tulle scarf.

"She looked gorgeous," says Deborah Goodrich Porter, an actress friend of Roberts's who served as a bridesmaid. Some guests were surprised by the simplicity of her dress. "It looked more like a slip that should go under a wedding dress," said one of Lyle's relatives, who had flown up in one of the chartered jets the singer sent for his parents. William and Bernell, who are retired Exxon employees, and some 16 other family members. "You could see her belly button!" Shoot, you could see her toes too: The bride, in what friends immediately recognized as a most Julia-esque fashion fillip, was barefoot.

Lovett, for his part, wore the classic dark suit and dazed expression as he stood at the altar, not far from where an American flag hung motionless, and waited for his betrothed. Some of his friends looked even more shocked. One college pal, Robert Earl Keen Jr., said he came home to find a phone message from Lovett that said, "I've met this great gal, and I'm getting married to her tomorrow, and I hope you can make it." In the end, Keen couldn't. But Lovett's childhood minister. Pastor DeWyth Beltz, from Klein's Trinity Lutheran Church, was there, and he conducted the 20-minute ceremony in conjunction with St. James's pastor, the Rev. Mark Carlson. After the bride and groom kissed, backup vocalist Francine Reed of Lovett's Large Band sang "The Lord's Prayer" a cappella from the choir loft. Then, since Lovett and his band had a gig that night in Nobelsville, Ind., 60 miles to the south, the newlyweds and their guests boarded the tour buses.

Talk about your summer romances: Here it was not even the Fourth of July yet, and Roberts was married to someone she hadn't even been dating on Memorial Day weekend. How did things come so far so fast? That question is still being sorted out by all 75 or so people who were in the church, including Roberts and Lovett. "I'm afraid I'm going to wake up," Julia told a friend soon after the ceremony, "and this will all be just a dream."

Like other Great Moments in Harmony, the Lovett-Roberts romance seems to have started in New Orleans. The couple were first spotted together there on June 8, midway through The Pelican Brief's monthlong shoot in that city. They were spotted at Café Brasil, where they had gone to hear the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, an acoustic band that specializes in funky Jewish folk music. Among other things, this means that, as they go through life, Lyle and Julia will seldom get the chance to look at each other knowingly and say, "Darling, they're playing our song!" On the other hand, they did dance a mean hora. "They were nuzzling and dancing together," recalls one customer. "Everyone knew something special was happening between them."

The couple certainly got caught up in each other's lives. She was backstage when he played Memphis; Vienna, W.Va.; and New York City. He visited her on the Pelican set in New Orleans. A couple of weeks ago. Julia started calling Lyle's mom just to chat. "When I'm not singing," Lyle told a cousin, "I'm talking to Julia." And even when he was singing—about hats or heartbreak—"His songs," says a band member, "suddenly took on different meaning."

Like many couples, Lyle and Julia developed a secret code: Lovett, on tour, dedicated songs to Fiona (Roberts's middle name) or to his "very special friend." "Fiona likes to think I wrote this song for her," said Lovett from the stage of New York's Paramount theater, before breaking into "She Makes Me Feel Good" ("She's got big red lips/ She's got big brown eyes/ When she treats me right/ It's a big surprise"). It wasn't till he had moved along to the next town, though, that the New York press figured out that the mysterious cross-dressing woman who had introduced "Stand By Your Man" (which Lovett also performed for the movie The Crying Game) was none other than Julia Roberts.

What she couldn't disguise—or even contain—was her happiness. "what I really liked about her." says Trish Shuman, media director for West Virginia's Wolf Trap Farm Park theater, where Lovett performed June 20, "is how animated she became during the set. At the end she threw her arms around a crew member, saying how much she had enjoyed the show." During a press conference in Washington for Pelican, when a reporter asked if she felt rusty after not taking on a major role in two years, Roberts retorted, "I don't feel rusty. Do I look rusty?" What she looked, as she knew as well as everyone else in that room, was spectacular, her hair grown back to its Pretty Woman curls, her beige linen pantsuit showing off the glow of her flawless complexion. "Actually," she continued, "I think I came back with some renewed vigor.... I've been giddy."

That Lyle Lovett was the source of Julia Roberts's giddiness was probably as much a surprise to his fans as hers. Sure, she had been romantically involved with a number of intense, often hunky actors, including Liam Neeson, Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland and, reportedly, Daniel Day-Lewis. Lovett, with his slightly off-center charm, was a clear departure from type. Lyle had made a career out of depicting his love life with a witty melancholy interspersed with moments of irrational hope. In "I Married Her Just Because She Looks Like You," the narrator does just that; in "She's No Lady," Lovett sings, "The preacher asked her/ And she said, 'I do.'/ The preacher asked me/ And she said, 'Yes, he does, too.'/ And the preacher said,/ 'I pronounce you 99-to-life./ Son, she's no lady, she's your wife.' " On his latest album, Joshua Judges Ruth, Lovett is the victim of unrequited love in no fewer than five songs.

Lyle's appeal to women may fall into the category of things that some men just don't get. He is not conventionally studly. Yet Mary-Chapin Carpenter won a Grammy for putting to music her fantasy about the singer; she croons in "I Feel Lucky" that "Lyle Lovett's right beside me with his hand upon my thigh." Asked by a reporter if he ever dreamed he'd become a sex idol, Lovett responded, " 'No' would be an understatement, but 'no.' " But that's precisely the source of his appeal. Says Sandy Lovejoy, a reporter on Phoenix radio station WNIX who has known Lovett for years: "What women look for in a man he's got in spades. He's sweet, kind and gentle and really a catch. And I bet you he'd do anything to make a woman happy. Anything." In an interview earlier this year, Lovett revealed that, for all his skeptical lyrics about relationships and marriage, he had both respect and longing for the institution. "I think anything that's worth thinking about and spending your life on is a matter of life and death," he said. "True love is a matter of life and death."

Family, too, clearly has a hold on him. The only child of a couple who have been married for 37 years, Lovett lives in a clapboard house built by his grandfather (the town of Klein is named for his great-great-grandfather) and less than a half mile from nearly a dozen aunts, uncles and cousins. "When I got up there," Lyle's uncle Calvin Klein says of the wedding, "I figured as famous as she was and he, that we'd just be a little number passing by. But Julia was exceptionally warm, and Lyle has always been that way, just first-class."

Roberts's childhood was, in contrast, marked by loss. Her parents separated when she was 3 years old. Her brother, Eric, went to live with their father, a local theater director, while she and her older sister, Lisa, stayed with their mother. Seven years later her father died. Although she and Eric have career in common, the two have had little contact since clashing over Eric's contentious breakup with his longtime girlfriend Kelly Cunningham two years ago.

Still, Julia and Lovett share the same small-town background—and big-time success. He earned a Grammy as Best Country Male Vocalist in 1989; she has a Golden Globe award for Steel Magnolias and Academy Award nominations for both that movie and Pretty Woman. And yet they are in no way competitive, a problem that may have played a role in Julia's relationships with other actors. While Lovett has a small part in Player director Robert Altman's next movie, Short Cuts, based on a series of Raymond Carver short stories, he has said he doesn't want an acting career. Nor has Roberts, her portrayal of a rock guitarist in 1988's Satisfaction notwithstanding, shown real interest in music.

While there was no dancing at the couple's wedding reception, held in a white tent outside the Deer Park Music Center, Roberts gladly tossed her bouquet to the female guests (it was caught by her agent, Elaine Goldsmith) and cheerfully hammed it up when Lovett got down on his knees to remove her pale-blue garter. "He makes me so happy," Julia said. "He's so good to me."

While there was no time for a honeymoon, the euphoria continued when Roberts returned to the Washington set of The Pelican Brief. There she was greeted by a crew member dressed as Cupid and carrying a bow and arrow. In the first scene shot that day, Roberts was supposed to be talking to actor John Heard on the phone. But director Alan Pakula arranged for Lovett to phone from Ohio and read Heard's lines. Roberts, recognizing Lovett's voice immediately, finished the scene, and, after the cut, turned to Pakula and said proudly, "That's my husband." And at the party thrown for Roberts later that day, costar Denzel Washington, along with cast and crew members, sported T-shirts that read, on the front, "Welcome Back, Mrs. Lovett", and on the back, "He's A Lovely Boy...But You Really Must Do Something About His Hair."

Who knows, Lovett might just change that trademark coiffure. At his wedding-night concert, after all, fans saw a different Lyle. For starters, the usually undemonstrative singer and his bride swayed in sync to the song "Stand By Your Man" in front of 10,000 cheering fans. Then he stood onstage and gave her a long, passionate kiss as the crowd went wild and word of their marriage spread from row to row. Finally, overwhelmed, he did the unthinkable: Lyle Lovett threw irony to the wind and engaged in a blatant, unapologetic, public display of sincerity. "Thank you very much," he told the audience. "And welcome to the happiest day of my life."

SHELLEY LEVITT
JOAN JENKINS and JOSEPH HARMES in Houston, BILL SHAW in Marion, JANE SANDERSON in Cookeville, Tenn., and bureau reports

  • Contributors:
  • Joan Jenkins,
  • Joseph Harmes,
  • Bill Shaw,
  • Jane Sanderson.