Backstory: Fiddler on the youth
COLUMBUS, MISS. — 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.
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."
He agreed to meet her at the Columbus Senior Center where he was performing. By the time she finished playing for the silver-haired crowd, Brock was scheduling her first lesson. "I went home and told my wife, 'I've got this little girl coming over,' and she said, 'I thought we said we weren't going to do this,' " he remembers, chuckling softly. "I said, 'Well, I'm going to teach this one.' " Within a month, he stopped charging her for the lessons.
Since then, the young chanteuse has become beloved at the senior center. Ruby Jane says she has friends of all ages, from 2 to 82. "They just love her and want to talk to her for hours," teases her mother, as Ruby Jane blushes. "At Wal-Mart especially, they're like, 'There's my Ruby Jane!' "
Her mother credits her social ease with home schooling, which she says removed the limitations of generational constructs. An artist and photographer herself, Smith proudly admits that neither of them are conformists. From the moment she was pregnant, she tried to fill Ruby Jane's head with as many good things as she could, reading and playing classical music for her while she was still in the womb. She wasn't daunted either when Ruby Jane's father disappeared in her third trimester. She simply moved in with her parents and made her only child's life as rich as possible.
"I thought literature and art and music and poetry were so important," she says. "I didn't know what she was going to do. I just knew it was better than sitting her in front of Barney."
When she began showing an interest in violins at age 2, her mother convinced a local teacher of the Suzuki method to teach her, even though the training usually doesn't begin until age 3. Smith studied right alongside her – until Ruby Jane turned 5 and her skills surpassed her mother's. When she become fascinated with bluegrass at 8, her mother put aside her qualms and spent six months searching the state for anyone who could lead her down this new path.
While Ruby Jane loved classical music, it didn't speak to her soul the way this wild, joyful slice of Americana did. It was raw and expressive, deeply emotional, and inherently fluid.
"I can't predict and say I'm doing any of this right," Smith says of her parenting. "I just step out and do what seems right at the moment."
Mother and daughter are at a crossroads again. Record companies are beginning to pursue her, offering contracts and advice. But at the heart of it all, Ruby Jane – reader of the Chronicles of Narnia, unabashed lover of chicken fingers and riding four-wheelers with her friends – is still young, too young for what's being offered.
"I'm not selling her," Smith says, taking a batch of cookies from the oven. "I'm not putting that kind of pressure on her. It will come, just not yet."
With cheerful aplomb, Ruby Jane says she doesn't mind waiting. She's writing songs, exploring jazz, studying Latin and Greek, and – oh, yeah, trying to read all of Shakespeare's plays "for the challenge." Every spare moment is given to practice, from 10 minutes to six hours a day. "I don't really have downtime," she says, without a trace of ego or regret. "I'm always trying to accomplish something or get something going."
Taking a moment to recite her favorite poem from memory, Rudyard Kipling's "If," Ruby Jane pauses to reflect on the poet's admonition to treat triumph and disaster equally and dream without making dreams your master.
"Every show there's something to improve on, but it's not all about hitting the notes right," she says. "I'd sit and play for hours."
Indeed, her favorite word is "encore," and it's a good thing, too – a lot of people predict that the little girl from Mississippi is about to learn a new word: fame.