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Backstory: Fiddler on the youth

By Carmen K. SissonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 13, 2006


Ruby Jane Smith is perched on a shaggy floor pillow in the middle of her sky-blue bedroom, suede-booted feet crossed, head tilted, and brows furrowed as she tries to remember the night she forgot what city she was in during a performance. It's understandable if the past three years seem a blur. Between winning her first fiddle competition after only six lessons, taking the Mississippi State Fiddler title, and performing at the Grand Ole Opry, life's kind of busy these days.

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Particularly when you're only 11 and there's a disco birthday party to plan and Lemony Snicket to read.

Yet if Ruby Jane's schedule seems unusually crowded for someone who still has stuffed animals, it's because she is something of a child prodigy – perhaps the South's next great bluegrass musician.

"She's born with it – all it's got to do is come out," says Opry legend Jim Brock, who has been training her. "At the rate she's going, she's going to be a top-notch musician."

Last night, Ruby Jane enthralled a hometown audience with a performance at the Rosenzweig Arts Center here. Clogs beating out a steady rhythm, flowered skirt whirling, she blazed through a few of the nine instruments she plays – fiddle, mandolin, guitar, harmonica, banjo, Dobro, piano, drums, and spoons – singing bluegrass favorites written long before she was born.

Almost every performance results in invitations for others, adding to her crowded schedule. Monday and Tuesday nights are dance lessons, Wednesdays are the handbell choir at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Thursdays are violin lessons with Mr. Brock, and Sundays are the church youth group.

Tonight, she's home – for a change. It's a rarity she and her mother plan to celebrate by snuggling in bed with cartons of greasy Chinese food and a movie. For all her accomplishments, Ruby Jane is still very much a preteen, from the turquoise feather boa and butterfly party lights draping her mirror to the Johnny Depp and Napoleon Dynamite posters covering her wall.

Poised and polite, with a megawatt gap-toothed grin, she neglects to mention the slew of regional awards she's won or the CBS Evening News interview earlier this year, when Bob Schieffer called her "the next big news in country music."

In typical Ruby Jane fashion, words tumbling faster than her tongue can shape the syllables, she recites a litany of musicians she admires. Not surprisingly, Brock – who's spent the past 50 years playing with some of the biggest names in bluegrass – figures prominently on that list. Since taking her on three years ago, he's become not only her mentor, but a surrogate grandfather.

Their meeting was a combination of hard work and serendipity. Her mother, JoBelle Smith, took her to see bluegrass musician Rhonda Vincent in concert. Before the performance, Ruby Jane went backstage to meet Ms. Vincent. The girl was carrying her fiddle, as she always does. Vincent dashed through a rendition of "Boil Them Cabbage Down" and asked Ruby Jane to play it. She did – so well that Vincent asked her to perform it onstage.

"I was sweating because she'd never played that song before," Ms. Smith recalls. "I was looking at her like, 'You can run if you want to,' but Ruby Jane got up there with a big old grin and played the fire out of that song."

Brock was in the audience. "I couldn't believe I hadn't heard about her," he says.

Four days later, Ruby Jane's mother called and asked him to teach her. "I'd taught in the past, but not in years," says Brock. "My house is small; I've got no studio. It's just a lot of trouble."