Yesterday, fiddle phenom, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and singer Ruby Jane turned 16. Less and less it feels right to call her a “prodigy” as she grows older and her skins on the wall continue to grow as well, surpassing the accolades many musicians twice her age have amassed: youngest fiddle player to ever play the Grand Ole Opry, touring with Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel, being named MVP of the Austin City Limits Festival by many.
Ruby Jane has deserved to be judged against musicians of any age for years, but as she reaches 16, her songwriting and singing have become even more refined. She has developed her own style; a unique mark of brilliance beyond blazing fiddle breaks. Ruby is old school, but with a young energy and a fresh approach. Ask yourself how many 16-year-olds are covering Townes Van Zandt songs, or singing into effect mics to make their music feel authentic?
I was lucky enough to sit down with Ruby outside of the RV that Ruby and her mom have called home for three years now; a humble existence that has helped nurture the dreams of this young woman. We talked about her first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry (you can hear her reaction when told Hank Williams is not a member), what she likes to do besides music (Football? Yes, football!), as well as meeting Willie Nelson, influences in her music, and her young perspective on an old world that at times loses touch with their dreams. Find the audio and the important parts transcribed below.
You should also check out the interview with CBS news she did when she was 11, where she talks about playing the Grand Ole Opry, and writing a song inspired by Hank Williams.
The Triggerman: You have another passion, don’t you? You have a new song that says, “I like to eat, pie makes me very happy.” What are some of your favorite foods?
Ruby Jane: That’s a good question. Yeah, I do like pie. I like pretty much all pie. My mom makes this great Dutch apple pie, it’s crumpled up brown sugar on top, and that’s probably my favorite pie ever. Everything from chocolate pie to quiche, which is a kind of pie I guess. I’m a big Japanese food fan. I love sushi. Chocolate, of course, I think every girl likes chocolate. Just in France which was amazing. When you go over to France, their pastries, I mean you can’t even compare French pastries. I got pretty addicted to French pastries when I was there. I think one day I even decided that I was gonna eat only pastries all day long. That didn’t really work out, I got a really bad stomach ache.
The Triggerman: Does it frustrate you that you’re only 15-years-old?
Ruby Jane: I’ve been lucky enough to gain respect at an early age, musically and artistically. When I was younger, 12 or 13, people would kinda just look down at me, not really cut me down, but be “oh she’s 12, she doesn’t really know.” And now which is really great, people respect my opinion when I’m hanging out with other people in music. So I really don’t have a problem with that. I think the only thing that’s weird, it’s not really frustrating, but that’s strange about being 15, is that I go to online high school, so I’m not around other kids my age, hardly at all. I’m around adults 24/7 . If I’m not doing school, I’m doing rehearsals with adults, or playing a gig, or having a meeting. My friends are adults. What is strange sometimes is remembering I’m 15. But there’s nothing really frustrating.
The Triggerman: Is there anything that frustrates you about adults?
Ruby Jane: That’s a tough question. I’m definitely not the first person to judge anybody. Something that is definitely frustrating, and I know people would say, “That’s just because she’s 15, and she hasn’t got the needle in her balloon yet.” But I look at people who’ve kinda given up. I’ve been blessed to have done so much at an early age, and I realize not everybody has been given those kind of opportunities. People have said to me before “You’ll get older. Things change. You’ll realize that you can’t really do what you thought you could do.” That to me is really frustrating. People say, “You never do what you thought you could do.” Well we can do whatever we want to do, truthfully. If we set our mind to it.
Ruby Jane: Yes, I very much do. Its important for me to remember how lucky I’ve been, and that not a lot of people get those opportunities. Really all I can do is be thankful because I do realize that my life has been very strange and different from most people. And that because of people like my mom that from the beginning put me before her own career. For me when I think about that, it’s like OK I’ve been given all this stuff. Now its just important for me to turn around and make sure I use it. It’s good though. I’ve had a cool life.
The Triggerman: Tell me about meeting Willie Nelson.
Ruby Jane: Most of the time I’m not really intimidated talking to famous people or whatever. But the one person that I really thought about before I met him, I thought “Oh my gosh I’m about to meet Willie Nelson, I hope I don’t faint.” When I was 4 or 5, it was for Christmas and my present was the Willie Nelson Teatro video with Emmylou Harris, that’s what I had asked my mom for, and when I got it I freaked out, and I just started running around the room screaming and none of the other kids understood it. So that was probably the one person I was scared to meet. And so I remember he walked in the room, and I had gone over the scenario, how it would happen in my head. So he walks in the room and he’s kinda short. He had a little tummy, he’d gained a little weight. And he just had this kinda goofy smile on his face. It was basically like your grandpa just walked in the room. I just remember meeting him, and him being the most down-to earth person. It was almost if it wasn’t even Willie Nelson. And ever since then he’s been the sweetest, most non-intimidating guy ever.
The Triggerman: So you toured with Willie on the Willie & The Wheel tour?
Ruby Jane: I did. I did some tours with him and his “Family Band” and then I did a tour with Willie & The Wheel because I recorded on that, which actually the first time I met him was back when they were recording the Willie & The Wheel CD. At that point they had already finished recording the whole CD, but Ray (Benson) had been talking to Willie about me, and Willie goes “OK let’s put her on the bonus track.” I met Ray about three months after coming into town (Austin).And I guess he found out about me because I’d been playing around town, and he was looking for somebody to be in the musical “A Ride With Bob.”
The Triggerman: So you get to Austin, you’re 12 years old, you pull your RV into town, and you’ve got your fiddle and your 12-year-old self, and you’re just going around to these different venues and trying to integrate into the Austin scene?
Ruby Jane: We went to a bunch of jam sessions. The first night in town we went to the Continental Club, and I can’t even remember how I got in, but Dale Watson was playing . Dale is very professional and is not the kind of guy that would just invite someone on stage that he’s never heard before. But luckily enough we got to talking, and I’d played with Marty Stuart and we had that mutual friend in common and he just said “Come play with me.” And we just started going around to jams and this great guy named Jim Stringer that plays guitar around town, I started sitting in with him, which was different for me, just getting up on stage and jamming, and we were doing that almost every night when I first got to town.
The Triggerman: Do you want to tour?
Ruby Jane: Oh yeah, definitely. My mom and I are both huge travel freaks. I’d much rather be traveling than in one place. So I can’t wait to get on the road. That’s a huge thing for me. I’m really looking forward to that.
The Triggerman: Tell me about your experience playing the Grand Ole Opry.
Ruby Jane: I’ve played the Grand Ole Opry twice. The first time I was nine-years-old. Second time I played I was like 11 or 12. The very first time I played with a guy named Mike Snider, this incredible banjo player and comedian. I got hooked up with Mike through Jim Brock who taught me fiddle for a long time. He played on the Opry for years with Jim & Jessie, and Bill Monroe. So I remember going to the Grand Ole Opry and I had it in my head that this was the make or break point. I thought if I do really good, I’ll be world famous, and if I do really bad, everyone’s gonna hate me and I’ll never do a show again. I was so nervous. I remember walking in and I told Jim my fiddle teacher and my mom I said, “These are the doors to fame or doom.” And I almost couldn’t even open the doors I was so nervous. Mike Snyder is a funny funny guy and was cracking jokes, and he could tell how nervous I was, so he took me on the back of the stage when the Whites were playing, and he said “I just want you to stand here for a minute, just take a deep breath and see what it feels like.” So I did, and after that, I felt really comfortable.
The Triggerman: Did you know that Hank Williams was not a member of The Grand Ole Opry?
Ruby Jane: Really? Wow. That’s interesting. You would think obviously that Hank Williams would be. Wow. That’s interesting.
The Triggerman: So do you know what “soul” is? Can you hear it in music?
Ruby Jane: I’d like to think so. I think it’s pretty easy to tell when someone’s playing just to play or making cliche rhymes. I think there’s a balance in saying exactly what you mean, and also making it sound good. I’ve also heard music where you can tell that person is pretty much just having sympathetic conversation with themselves and it doesn’t actually make sense musically or it isn’t actually catchy. On the other end there’s music that’s pure beats and catchy and you can tell they put absolutely no thought into what they’re writing. So I think there’s a happy medium in really expressing yourself and having soul, but also something that makes sense and sounds good.
The Triggerman: What do you like to do that’s not playing music?
Ruby Jane: It’s so weird because so much of what I do has to do with music, there’s almost no time for anything else. But hanging out with friends obviously. I’m a big reader, I love reading books. I’ve never been a big sports person, but I like playing football.
The Triggerman: So wait, you like playing football?
I like playing football when I get a chance. I don’t have a lot of chances, but there’s something about just tacking somebody that is so, I don’t know. And that’s really the only sport. I mean I like sports, and I think they’re fun to play. I can’t watch them, but playing football, whether it being at a family reunion, I love playing football.
The Triggerman: Do you ever see yourself not playing music?
Ruby Jane: No. Like I’ve thought about “what if?” but I think so much of my life has been involved in it I really don’t think I’d know how to do anything else at this point. I like acting a lot, and I’d like to in the future do acting as well as music, and I’ve taken some acting classes and I enjoy that. But in terms of like full life, I can’t see myself doing anything besides music.
The Triggerman: I’m going to ask you a very weird question. And there’s no right or wrong answer. Sometimes, maybe when its late at night, maybe you’re in a hotel room somewhere on a tour. Do you ever feel like at times you get a weird pain in your chest, almost like there’s a hole in your chest? Or like there’s something missing?
Ruby Jane: No. I think if there were ever to be anything missing in my life, it would be if I wasn’t playing music. I feel pretty fulfilled. And I have thought about that before, you know I’ve thought about what would it be like if I didn’t play music, and I think it would be that hole that you’re talking about. I think at this point in my life, I think if I were ever to feel unhappy, it would be because I felt like I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. And I feel like I really am doing what I’ve been called to do, which is fulfilling. So no, I don’t, thank goodness.