Ruby Jane Gets Inspired

Two hours have passed since Ruby Jane Smith finished up an early Sunday morning set at the fourth straight Austin City Limits Music Festival in which she's performed. She's still a ball of energy.

That's impossible to ignore. It's her entire essence at the moment: You can hear it in the jolly way she utters every sentence; you can see it in the smile she has no desire to shake.

It's not necessarily the performance that has her so amped, though. That was satisfying enough, but it's kind of old hat for her at this point. She's just 16, but this was already the sixth time she's graced one of the Austin festival's stages: After debuting with Asleep at the Wheel in 2008, she had her own set in 2009; then, last year, in addition to performing a set of her own, she made cameos during performances from Local Natives and Blues Traveler. So, y'know, she's done this before. No big deal. Just another awesome thing. Plus, she literally lives right around the corner from the fest's Zilker Park grounds.

At 16, Ruby Jane still has stars in her eyes.
Pete Freedman
At 16, Ruby Jane still has stars in her eyes.

Everything is awesome these days for the Austin-dwelling Smith, who was born in Dallas to one-time Deep Ellum hepcat JoBelle Smith in 1994.

Because of her unquestioned fiddle prowess, the younger Smith kinda has the whole music world at her feet at the moment. Thanks to her former managers at C3 Presents, she's already performed at Lollapalooza; she counts Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson as a mentor; Austin hero Bob Schneider is considered "a close friend."

If things keep going her way, My Morning Jacket's Jim James will be next to enter Smith's impressive inner circle. She swoons when she starts discussing her interaction with the frontman the day before, just a few hours before his band stole the fest's Saturday night spotlight from Stevie Wonder.

"I totally got to meet him and hang out," she says, almost stumbling over her own words, scooting forward in her seat to relay the story. "I, like, freaked out. He was walking out of the catering tent, and he had a plate of food, and I just saw him out of the corner of my eye, and he was walking off or whatever. I was on a golf cart getting ready to leave, and I just jumped off of the golf cart and ran over like a screaming teenage girl fan, 'cause I guess that's what I am. And I just run over and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, I just have to tell you that you're this huge hero of mine. Like, seriously.' He actually put me on the list for his show tonight. He's playing at Stubb's, and he put me on the list."

She finally takes a breath, and she shakes her head, her disbelief washing over her face.

"You know, when Jim James asks you to come to his show, there's not a whole lot that you can control after that," she finally says as she sinks back into her chair. "I mean, I have to go. I just have to."

She suddenly notices that she's been wearing a My Morning Jacket T-shirt the whole time she's been telling the story.

"Oh my gosh!" she says.

A few hours earlier, she had her own gleeful admirers. Young girls in T-shirts advertising various Austin-based fiddle camps littered the audience for Smith's set. They stared up at her, transfixed as she channeled a reverse Tasmanian Devil, her upper half a mess of flying hair and blurred arms whipping past the violin tucked beneath her chin. These young fans appear at a lot of Smith's shows, Smith says. Sometimes they even run up to her after a set in the same way that she had just done to James.

"I love it," she says of those moments. "It's very inspiring to me just to know that maybe I'm inspiring other people. There's a lot of younger kids that come up and say they want to be like me. I love that. It makes me feels so great. It really helps me know that I'm doing the right thing. I basically want to be like Jim James. When little me comes up and screams at me, I want to embrace those kids the same way that my heroes have embraced me. That's really satisfying."

Growing older is satisfying, too, she says. A senior in her online high school, Smith expects to be done with her studies by next spring. Perhaps as a result, she says she's starting to feel like more of a grown-up. She's starting to act like one, too, she says, pointing out some changes she debuted in her set at the festival that morning, some exercises in expressing in her growing sense of artistic freedom.

No, this wasn't the same bluegrass and country set she's made her name on. It was a poppier set, one filled with rock flourishes. Sure, she still played the fiddle in every song — just as she has since she started to play the instrument as a 2-year-old. But most songs started out with her strumming on an acoustic guitar, an instrument she started playing at age 7.

"I love what I used to do," Smith says. "But I've always listened to rock 'n' roll. I don't really listen to that other stuff. I mean, I listen to bluegrass and country, I guess, but I'm not sitting at home listening to George Strait and Carrie Underwood all day. I'm listening to Tom Waits and Bright Eyes and, yes, My Morning Jacket. I've always loved that kind of music. It's what I've always wanted to do. I just didn't have the tools — the players and songs — to do that."

She thinks she does now. For two months, she and her band worked for this set, readying this new direction for her sound. After a 2006 debut LP that was immediately followed by two EPs and a live album, she's considering the LP she hopes to release next spring to be her true debut.

"I've been, like, this fiddle prodigy and this novelty, really," she acknowledges. "This is really the more adult Ruby Jane. It may not be my first album, but it'll be the debut of the adult me. And I may not even really be an adult yet. But this is the kind of music I want to make. I always, always will be playing the fiddle. But I'm also all about being outside of the box, and I'm not about doing what people expect me to do, ever. My entire life, I've always tried to do things and work really, really hard at things that no one would expect of me. I've obviously been very blessed with many opportunities, but I've always tried to do the unexpected. That's what all my heroes do."

And she said it: She wants to be like Jim James.

The whole ball-of-energy bit is a good start. So is her overall conviction.

"I just want to rock," she says, somehow sounding at once wistful and confident. "I want to blow people's minds."

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