It’s not often you find a 16 year-old playing their own set at a music event as big as the Austin City Limits Music Festival. It’s also not often that a 16 year-old has been making music since she was 2, has played alongside some of music’s all time greats, has taken the stage at the Grand Ole Opry and has a head on her shoulders that keeps it all in crystal clear perspective.
The first time I saw Ruby Jane Smith play was in my brother-in-law and sister-in-laws’ backyard in 2007, just after she moved to Austin. Noted songwriters Bill and Ruth Carter brought her and her mom JoBelle over for dinner and after we were all significantly full, Ruby Jane broke out her fiddle. Within seconds, everyone's mouths were on the ground, all of us in awe of this then 12-year-old’s incredible talent. More than four years later, Ruby Jane says no matter what changes life brings her way, one thing remains the same,
“From the time I was young I’ve had the same dreams and goals for myself which is to make a huge difference in the world through my music and so that obviously is the ultimate goal and will always be. “
Coming off her first appearance at Lollapalooza in August, this Sunday, along with her three band mates, Ruby Jane will play ACL for the 4th time in her young life. Last year she played ACL with her own band for the first time and several thousand people went away with a greater appreciation for the complete artist she has grown to be.
The band I have now, the band people are going to see at ACL has a lot more rock in it than anything I’ve ever done before.
“Last year I couldn’t have asked for anything better. This year my big hope is to put on the best possible show,” she says.
Ruby Jane has played fiddle over the years with the likes of Willie Nelson, Marty Stuart and Asleep at the Wheel. Earlier in her career, she focused on bluegrass and playing the standards, seldom playing her own compositions. She says that is changing.
“I’m focusing a lot more on singing, songwriting and having a band of my own and creating my own sound that has kind of turned out completely different than I would have ever expected it to be. The band I have now, the band people are going to see at ACL has a lot more rock in it than anything I’ve ever done before.”
She describes the band’s sound as a unique melting pot of rock, alternative and Americana, but the essence of the sound remains her fiddle playing, which is as diverse as the young artist’s many influences and as rich as the Mississippi soil that permeates her heritage.
“I’m changing obviously all the time and so this music is gonna be different than the bluegrass, but I think people are really gonna enjoy it.”
Nearly all of the material the Ruby Jane Show plays now was written by the band’s namesake. She says writing songs is one of the most creatively intense things she’s every done.
“It takes a lot of mental energy and its very draining but that is one of the things that I love about it. You’re creating something new and it’s coming from your own mind and that whole process is amazing.”
She says though she’s not lived as long as some writers, she doesn’t let that limit her.
“I don’t have necessarily the same life experiences that most adults have had so sometimes people think oh she’s 16 she’s writing songs they’re not gonna be that great….but being around adults my entire life and being a well educated person, I have the ability to kind of put myself in someone else’s shoes and think about what those emotions could feel like and so I write from that perspective.”
Between touring and writing and school, Ruby Jane leads a busy life. She’s now a senior, taking classes online with other teens with equally busy lives. She says she’s mastered the delicate balancing act of school and music.
She jokes that she will always put music first but studies hard and pretty much gets all A’s. I asked her a question I’m sure she gets asked a lot...whether having a career at such a young age makes her feel like she’s missing out on doing some of the things other teenagers do.
“Having school and music at the same time makes it difficult to have time for almost anything else.”
She goes on, “I love my life and there are things that I miss about being a teenager but then I kind of come to the realization that I’m getting to do a lot of cool things other teenagers are not getting to do, so you know I’m happy with what I have.”
Ruby Jane is taking the SAT in October and says she’s going to wait and see where her music career takes her before deciding about college. She says she hopes to get another CD recorded in the near future and would be happy to be touring 24/7 once she graduates high school.
Beyond that, “I honestly have no idea what the future holds...it’s really wherever the road may lead along the way and I obviously trust that whatever is meant to happen will happen. So I’m just along for the ride and will continue to work hard and continue to build my music and build my career. "
She adds, “You know I’m always thinking about how to make myself better and how to make my music better and so with that in mind and with always working hard I think that I will get to where I want to be.”
As someone who has watched Ruby Jane grow as an artist and as a young lady, I have no doubt that her journey will be one that brings great joy to a whole lot of music lovers.
You can see Ruby Jane Sunday at 11:20a.m. on the Austin Ventures stage.