Some people still say art is suffering, but in a century where death by tuberculosis or dysentery is as likely to pick off Western artists as an asteroid, we can say musicians today have it pretty good. A night busking might only net you enough for a carton of milk and a can of processed pasta, but if you've made it to 31, you're still beating the fin de siècle curve.
An artist who has not yet even turned 21, Ruby Jane Smith is a 17-year-old fiddle prodigy whose next trick is to reinvent herself as a songwriter and singer first. Last week she released her first album in that vein, Celebrity (Empire of Emptiness), but not before some celestial body, envious or bored (or maybe it's nothing other than sad circumstance), brought some suffering to her doorstep.
Shortly after ramping up a Kickstarter campaign to fund Celebrity, Jane and her mother, JoBelle Smith, were robbed at gunpoint after a performance in Houston on December 8 at the Dosey Doe. The man took their TrailBlazer stuffed with music equipment and, though mother and daughter were left unscathed, a report from KXAN days later alludes to how much worse things could have been.
"He actually pointed the gun at me and tried to get me back in the car," Ruby Jane told the local TV news outlet. "I just kind of like, backed up."
Almost six months from the day of the crime, Ruby Jane concentrates not on what could have been, but what has been.
"Looking back on it, people were already coming together to help, but after the carjacking, the funds that began to pour in to make the album and to replace the instruments ... it was just incredible to see," she says now. "They found my guitar about three days after the carjacking, and they found the car about a week after that. It was a couple streets down in a Jack in the Box parking lot. Those were the only two things that were found."
Including the assailant, who was never identified.
Ruby Jane and JoBelle reside at an RV park in a part of Austin regaled for being "funky." On site, the word "foreign" seems more apropos. The minicommunity seems as unlikely to exist here, butting up against new apartments and the edge of Zilker Park, as an alien colony.
The Smith's vehicle sits at the end of the lot, surrounded by a portable garden that stretches shade and greenery across the outdoor table where Ruby sits. JoBelle brings out iced tea in a mason jar with a healthy piece of lemon swimming on top. She gives us some privacy and speaks about running errands, but she doesn't leave. Her presence, though unseen, is as visceral and heavy as that mason jar.
Ruby Jane adds Southern genteel to her Austin bohemianism, attributed to growing up in Mississippi with her mother and grandparents. She's fighting a cold today, having just returned from Lancaster, Pa., for her high school graduation from the Veritas Press Scholars Academy, a private, Christian school from which she's taken her entire curriculum online.
"I've never been to a 'regular school,'" she explains, undaunted by having potentially "missed out" on teenage acclimation or only meeting her classmates at graduation. "It's based in classical education. We learn all our history through literature. It's a unique curriculum."
Today she's wearing a full-length skirt and sports big, dark sunglasses. I can just make out her eyes when she turns to the side, smiling over something, or when she pulls to the side in a burst of energy, which happens probably less than it would if she was feeling up to snuff.
"[Growing up], I wasn't allowed to watch normal TV, so if I wanted to watch something, mom would give the babysitter this one video of classical violinists. I just fell in love with the instrument. I got my first toy violin when I was two and a half, I guess. I carried it around like a baby doll wherever I went."
Five years later, a tutor began pushing her in the direction of his favored Appalachian style and within a year she was winning fiddle contests.
"I think I was 9 or 10 when I first put together my first band. It was me and a bunch of older guys," she laughs. "We just started playing bluegrass festivals."
With a taste for Tom Waits and Johnny Cash, Ruby Jane got noticed quickly after relocating to Austin with her mother in 2008.
"I remember the first night we were here," beams the fiddler. "I went to the Continental Club and got to play with Dale Watson, of all people."
Ray Benson plucked her to perform in his musical retrospective of Bob Wills, A Ride With Bob. Through Benson she met Willie Nelson.
"Even at that point I wasn't doing a lot of my own music," she says. "I wasn't really comfortable enough in my own skin to truly sing and play all of the music I had written. This is really more of the grownup version of Ruby Jane."
Her lapse into the third person isn't as striking as her referring to herself as a "grownup," but the standards by which Ruby Jane measures her career are more stringent than most. Having performed with Willie Nelson and put out two albums previously are but stepping stones to Celebrity (Empire of Emptiness). From the title down, Ruby Jane's new CD strikes out into what she calls a "new style."
The title track is a somewhat perplexing indictment for someone who describes themselves as "having notoriety" over "being famous," but Ruby Jane chalks up the sentiment to what she's experienced firsthand.
"I've had a lot of friends in the music business where the more famous and more popular they became, the more they got lost in drugs and alcohol and haven't been able to stay true to themselves."
It's a sentiment expressed on stand-out track "XXVII," where the teenager ruminates, "Don't lose your mind/You're only twenty-seven" over a sinking rock track that sounds a lot more Radiohead than Asleep at the Wheel.
"A lot of the songs are about development and about growth and about change."
Change means that this Ruby Jane is less apt to play standards at Gruene Hall to sunburnt tourists than to fans her own age at a dark club in town. She mentions Adele and Norah Jones as markers of artists whose music has progressed quickly from where they began. Appalachia suddenly feels very far away.
Both sheltered and shell-shocked, the life of a young performer mirrors just slightly the life of an average American teenager. Pushed to rattle off pet peeves, Ruby Jane's answer is grounded in a work ethic that sounds like it comes from the mouth of someone much older and less relaxed.
"It bothers me when people don't do their job," she smiles. "My whole life I've been a hard worker and my mom's been a harder worker. If I'm goofing off or not doing what I'm supposed to, she's always kept me in line.
"I wish that I could let myself relax. Maybe that pisses me off. I've been sick the last couple of days and I should be laying in bed and resting and getting better, but I can't let myself lay around too much.
"I don't know if that's how I've been raised or if that's how I am."
Don't lose your mind, Ruby Jane. You're only 17.
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