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As she finishes high school, fiddle prodigy Ruby Jane's style evolves on first studio album

Michael Corcoran
Ruby Jane has been playing the violin since she was 2 years old. The 17-year-old expands her image as a bluegrass fiddle whiz on her debut studio album, due out June 19, with 10 original songs and her airy, haunting voice. 'The Innocents,' a last-minute addition to the album, is about the carjacking she experienced.

Ruby Jane's debut studio album was 99 percent done when she went back into the studio in late March to give the finishing touch to a couple of tracks. When that work with guitarist Trevor LaBonte and percussionist Jason McKenzie was done, the 17-year-old fiddle prodigy and maturing songwriter asked co-producer Bradley Hartman if there was time to record a song she'd just written.

"The Innocents" was especially important to Ruby Jane because she wrote it, in part, to cope with what happened in Houston on the night of Dec. 8. After a show at the Mucky Duck, Ruby Jane and her mother, JoBelle Smith, were carjacked at gunpoint. During the horrifying episode, the assailant pointed the gun at Ruby Jane and tried to get her back in the car, but JoBelle's screams hastened the thief's exit.

"While my mother was going ballistic, I was just numb, having an out-of-body experience," says Ruby Jane, who lost, among other things, a cherished violin, custom made for her by the noted Jonathan Cooper.

"For the first few days afterward I was thinking that I really miss my instruments," she says, "but as it slowly started to sink in, what had happened, I began to realize how close we were to being blown off the face of the Earth." Maternal instincts might have saved Ruby Jane from a much-worse fate.

"I was kind of surprised I was able to write about (the incident) so soon, if at all," Ruby Jane says. After she sang and played "The Innocents" on guitar for Hartman, the producer proclaimed it the best song she's written thus far. Ruby Jane was thinking the same thing. After recording it that day, Ruby Jane said she felt empowered. "When we played it back, I felt like nothing could keep me from my music."

These days they fall like raindrops

And wash away your fears

But we are young, and we will never stop

So wait for the skies to clear

— "The Innocents"

The LP "Celebrity (Empire of Emptiness)," which comes out June 19, is going to surprise folks who know Ruby Jane as the teenage bluegrass fiddle whiz. She plays the violin throughout, but her airy and haunting voice is front and center. The 10 songs she has written (along with a cover of Wilco's "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart") are closer to the coffee shop than the mountain top. Think of a young Feist.

Thematically, "Celebrity" is about staying true to your sense of purpose when outside influences are a tempting diversion.

"I'm not a celebrity or anything, but I've grown up in the music business and I've seen people around me become slaves to the public or run into problems with drugs and alcohol," she says. "I have big dreams and I do want to become famous, but I never want to lose sight of who I am."

Ruby Jane found her voice, quite literally, while getting ready for the new album. "I never liked the way I sang before, but it wasn't until I was writing these songs that I realized my natural voice is three keys higher than I'd been singing," she says.

Born in Dallas and raised in Mississippi, Ruby Jane moved to Austin at age 13 and has made the most of her four years here. While managed by C3 Presents for a couple years, she fronted her own band at the Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza music festivals. As a fiddler she's toured with Willie Nelson and Asleep At the Wheel, and she has sat in with everyone from Bob Schneider and Will Sexton to Lyle Lovett and Dale Watson. The fiddle has been Ruby Jane's addiction since she was 2, and she has the distinction of being the youngest fiddler (age 10) to play the Grand Ol' Opry in Nashville.

Enough about the good ol' days. June is graduation month for Ruby Jane, who will not only be releasing an album that marks her new direction but will wear a cap and gown. Early next month, the home-schooled daughter and her mother, JoBelle, will fly to Pennsylvania to participate in commencement ceremonies for her online high school. As salutatorian, Ruby Jane will give a speech to her fellow graduates.

She might talk about facing the future with the courage of your convictions.

With "Celebrity," Ruby Jane is boldly starting over. She's selling heartfelt songs, not hotshot solos. It's a crowded field, and odds of success aren't good, but it's a plunge she says she had to take.

"I feel like I'm entering a new stage in my life. I've never considered myself a child, but I wasn't mature enough before to fully express myself."

When you play behind Willie Nelson, it's only natural to want to make the same kind of magic out of air. "I'm not 13 or 14 anymore," she says of the times she lived to wow crowds with her fiddle prowess. "Now, I just want to be the best artist I can be. I want to create music in my own style."

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