Artist Feature: Ruby Jane & the Reckless / by Tess Cagle

Originally published in the Spring 2016 Digital Issue of ORANGE Magazine. 

It’s 10 p.m. at the West Campus Block Party, and the crowd at the 21st Street Co-op is looking a little sparse as the final band of the evening, Ruby and the Reckless, finishes up their soundcheck. Frontwoman Ruby Jane Smith states her requests confidently during the soundcheck — this clearly isn’t her first rodeo, and she knows what she wants.

Once they wrap up their sound check and dive into their set, the room instantly rumbles with loud, funky rock music. Smith pulls out the driving force to their sound — her fiddle — and begins to shred. It only takes about one full song before the co-op is brimming with watchers. Some are staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the technical virtuosity happening onstage, while others dance and sway along to the beat.

Ruby and the Reckless are a psychedelic indie rock band with a jazz-funk overtone, driven by Smith’s trademark fiddle. The members are all veterans of the Austin music scene, which is impressive considering none of them are over the age of 30. In fact, Smith is only 21 years old, yet she’s been pursuing her dream for 14 years, while bassist Austin Simmons has been pursuing his for 13. Each member of the band boasts a long list of prior projects and experiences, but collectively agrees that this particular project is the one they plan to follow through with all the way.

The band can at least partially attribute their skill to the fact that they’ve been doing this since they were babies. Smith picked up her first violin when she was 2 years old. “It’s something I’ve done since a very early age,” she says. “I was homeschooled and never went to a regular school. It was always about music for me.”

Smith started with the classics, but at 8 years old she began entering fiddle contests around her Mississippi hometown. She’s studied under the best — most notably, Mark O’Connor, an American fiddler who’s won two Grammys and was named Musician of the Year by the Country Music Association six years in row. At 9 years old, Smith became the youngest fiddler to play at the Grand Ole Opry, the legendary Tennessee stage, and earned the title “fiddle prodigy.” Smith thinks it’s a generous term and is hesitant to adopt it for herself. “I’m just passionate about music,” she says.

Still, the proof is in the sound, and it’s hard to call Smith anything but a prodigy after hearing her shred wah-drenched solos faster than most guitarists could ever dream. When Smith moved to Austin at age 13, she was quickly scouted by several Texas country icons, including Asleep at the Wheel and Willie Nelson. Nelson ended up bringing Smith on the road as his tour opener. Since then, Smith has toured with ZZ Top, Sheryl Crow, Drake Bell, Local Natives and more, as well as playing at Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits Music Festival with the Reckless.

Until recently, the band performed simply as “Ruby Jane,” reflecting Smith’s previous solo endeavors. They cycled through several members before finally curating the perfect lineup.   That’s not an exaggeration. Smith and Simmons scouted each member until they had fleshed out the band to their liking, at which point they decided it was time for a name change. “When the five of us got together, it became more of a unit,” Smith says. “Everybody had different input with the arrangements, so it basically became more to the point where it wasn’t just about me anymore. It was about everybody and the band working together. So that’s when we decided to change over to Ruby and the Reckless, which is what we’re morphing into now.”

It should go without saying that anybody fit to support Smith better have an impressive resume.  Drummer Chris Copeland previously played with award-winning band the Blues Mafia, which featured other talented Austinites like Max Frost. Guitarist and backup vocalist Miggy Milla joined the band upon completing his degree in vocal performance at the Berkeley School of Music in Boston. Simmons has the deepest Austin roots. He grew up hanging out at Willie World and the original Backyard, Nelson’s venue. Keyboardist Sam Powell is veteran of the Austin music scene as well. As the oldest member of the group, he’ll also soon be the first to leave, and the band is on the hunt for a replacement.

As the band grows more comfortable with its new identity, Smith and Simmons have no doubt that this is the right path for them. They’ve both had defining moments that solidified their passion for music. For Smith, it was her first live performance at age 7, when bluegrass artist Rhonda Vincent passed through Mississippi and invited her onstage to play to a sold-out crowd. Smith remembers the moment vividly. “I looked up from playing for the first time, and right at that moment, the spotlight came down and hit me and the audience started clapping and going crazy. That’s when I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life,” Smith says.  

Simmons, on the other hand, has had a series of moments that led him to the realization that music is his chosen path. He grew up within walking distance from Nelson’s road manager’s music venue in Spicewood, and worked as a stagehand at Wille World. “You have all these old Western heroes who all played out there — all of Willie’s crew played out there — and there was this dude named B.B. Morse who played with Willie and was one of those old bass players. He would always let me get up onstage and teach me how to play old country hits,” Simmons reminisces.”It was moments like that, these moments that build up over time, and you find that that’s where the happiness is.”

Ruby and the Reckless has a packed calendar through the end of the year. They plan to release several singles and music videos throughout July and August, leading up to the release of their debut album, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 23. Smith and Simmons, the band’s two key songwriters, say they’re taking their time with the album. “We were going to do it this summer, but as Ruby and I have continually written for this project, it’s continually morphed and grown,” Simmons says. “We’ve been finding the right songs, finding the right vibe for who we are as a band. We feel that a lot of bands in the city rush to get work out — they just want to record, record, record and put something out to get famous. We’ve all put out our fair share of albums from multiple bands, so we’re all taking the approach to pick the perfect songs to get that perfect sound.”

After the album release, the band plans to hit the road for two months. It’s a rigorous schedule, and not everybody is cut out for this lifestyle, but Ruby and the Reckless believe they have the experience and frame of mind to go the distance with this project. “It seems like we’re young, but this is something we’ve been pursuing for a long time,” Smith says.

Simmons agrees, and adds that he can’t imagine a future for himself without music in it. “Playing music was somewhere where everything in the world was okay. And it still is,” he says. “Onstage, when you’re in the middle of a great song and the crowd’s feeling it — oh, it’s heaven. It’s the best feeling. All the endorphins are hitting you. That is the reason — it’s the endorphins, the emotion, that pure, raw feeling.”