Jim Chancellor or "Texas Shorty", as he is more commonly known, is widely acknowledged to be one of the masters of Texas-style fiddling. Born in 1943 in Dallas County, Texas, Chancellor's career started at the age of seven when his father brought home a mandolin. By the age of nine, he was playing mandolin over KTER radio with his brother Allen, where he became "Shorty" of "The Texas Al and Shorty Show". When in his teens, Chancellor heard the Texas fiddling of World Champion fiddler Benny Thomasson, causing him to put away his mandolin and begin to learn fiddle under Thomasson's direct tutelage.
Texas-style fiddling is characterized by a high level of technique with long bow strokes and endless variations on a core repertoire based largely on traditional tunes. Chancellor has spent years interviewing traditional musicians and researching performances on "78" records in order to learn the subtleties of past Texas contest fiddlers.
The fiddling tradition in Texas is augmented by fiddle contests, and Chancellor is credited as the youngest fiddler to win the World Championship in Crockett, Texas. As a student of Thomasson's, Chancellor helped establish Thomasson's approach as the model for the modern contest style. He then proceeded to become the second fiddler in the history of the event to attain undefeated status by winning the contest three consecutive times in 1955-57. Chancellor's accomplishments also include five Texas State Championships and membership in the Texas Fiddler Hall of Fame. Chancellor is also one of the first Texas fiddlers to market his recordings; and his arrangements have had an impact on fiddlers of all ages.
In the 1980s, Chancellor recorded Texas Shorty, World Champion Fiddler, which featured musicians including Mark O'Connor, Gerald Jones, Robert Bowlin, and Sam Bush, as well as Elden Graham and Robert Chancellor. Most recently, Chancellor recorded Old Sport, an album of old time tunes accompanied by Nashville songwriter/performer and friend John Hartford.
Chancellor continues to teach a new generation of Texas fiddlers through classes and workshops and performs around the country with his wife, Ruthie.
NEA: Jim, can you tell me where and when you were born?
Jim Chancellor: I was born in Dallas, Texas in 1943. I don't recall the hospital, I'm sure my mother or dad said, but somewhere in that city I met the light of day.
NEA: And how many kids were in your family?
Chancellor: There were five in our family, three brothers and two sisters, and we all had an interest in music, but mostly the boys. The girls loved music but didn't play music so that was what we did. We didn't have television and all the other entertainment features that we have now, so we sat around and played music and that was kind of what got me started, I think, probably.
NEA: Now your dad loved music, did he not?
Chancellor: He loved it and he would have loved to have been in the professional music business, but as it worked out it didn't happen. He actually had a real nice voice but you know sometimes with big families you just don't get to do sometimes the things that you want to do. But he got some success kind of through me and through my brothers. So we played and he got to have a little bit of that dream through us.
NEA: You played together as a family, when you were younger?
Chancellor: We did. In fact all of the Chancellor family, besides just my immediate family, would gather from time to time and they all had an interest in music and we had great fun.
NEA: Now you started off on the mandolin.
Chancellor: I started off on a mandolin, which is, as you know, very similar in noting -- the tuning is the same as a fiddle. So my dad brought a mandolin and a guitar home. He was kind of a trader. And so he told me, my brother and I, "whichever instrument you choose, you can have it." So as it turned out, I picked the mandolin and Allen picked the guitar and so we started trying to learn, that's how it started.
NEA: Did your Dad teach you?
Chancellor: He did, but you know, the first tune I picked out on the mandolin my mother taught me and it was "Buffalo Gals". She hummed it to me and I found those notes on the Mandolin. But my Dad did teach us a lot about music and so everybody had a part in our learning.
NEA: Well you ended up on the radio, did you not? That's how you became Texas Shorty.
Chancellor: Yes. My brother Allen was older and taller than I, and I was a little short, round kid, so my Dad came up with the idea that we would call ourselves "Texas Al and Shorty". So we lived in this little community on the edge of Dallas and we played in the community music programs and then finally we went over to a little town called Terrell, Texas, where they had a radio station. Back then you could actually purchase radio time, so we bought fifteen minutes, and it was the Texas Al and Shorty Show. So we did that for a few years and then Allen got older and he decided to go out and seek his fortune and it just left me. So without Texas Al it was just Texas Shorty.
NEA: So how was that? Do you remember the first radio show?
Chancellor: I was terrified. And in fact the staff would joke me that it would be "Texas Al and his silent partner, Shorty."
NEA: So what happened when Al left? Did you have to start talking?
Chancellor: I had to. My Dad coached me on how to talk and what to say and so I started practicing and sure enough it worked out okay and we played at different places. He played the guitar with me, and we traveled a lot; we played in a lot of fiddle contests. That's kind of the forum for fiddlers, fiddle contests.
NEA: How did you get to the fiddle?
Chancellor: When I was thirteen, my Dad met a man named Benny Thomasson, who lived in the mid cities of Dallas and Fort Worth. Benny had just been in the newspaper -- he won the World Champion Fiddle contest. So when Dad met him he was so excited about it because Benny was such a fabulous musician. I met him, and when that happened I realized I wanted to be a fiddle player because he played such nice music and so then I laid my mandolin down pretty much and started playing the fiddle. Of course Benny, he played all the contests as well, and so I met over the years hundreds of old-time fiddlers that I learned from. And of course in those days most of the tunes were not written, they weren't transcribed like they are now. We have a great abundance of fiddle music that's been written down and so now people that want to learn an old tune that can usually find the written music to it, but then that wasn't the case so you almost had to learn it from the person who could play it. So that's how I learned.
NEA: Now talk about Benny Thomasson because he is quite a name in Texas fiddling, isn't he?
Chancellor: Oh he was, and some have asked me, was he the father of Texas fiddling? And I would say he was almost the father but there were some others in there who contributed. But Benny, well first of all he was a car repairman, a body man, a paint and body shop. And that was his occupation. But he played, he loved music, he loved fiddle music, and he was an incredible innovator. And he was so gentle and so shy about his talent that you'd never hear him brag about what he could do. But he was a giant and just one of those musical geniuses that chose to remain almost anonymous, except for the people that he influenced.
NEA: Can you explain what makes Texas fiddling distinctive, different?
Chancellor: If you go back to the roots of fiddling you'll find mostly a lot of it's associated with dancing and so many of the old time fiddle players played with a lot of rhythm in their style. Because the dancers needed that and so it was kind of repetitious and lots of rhythm. When dancing became not as prevalent in that field people were playing the old-time fiddle tunes but they just kind of were simple little melodies, just kind of over and over. So what Benny did -- and now it's been labeled the Texas style -- he took the old tunes that were simple melodies and he embellished them. His goal was to make them interesting but at the same time to keep the identity of the tune. If he played the old tune of "Sally Goodin" or "Billy in the Lowground", both of them are very simple melodies, and you would know it was those tunes but you would be so entertained by all the ornaments he put in the music. So that was one distinctive part of his playing. The other, when I have a class, I usually use the example of the modern word Pixels. What I think Benny did was he added pixels to the tunes so that they sounded more flowing, and kind of feathered the edges so to speak so that all of the sounds of it was very beautiful and more of a listening piece then a dancing piece maybe.
NEA: And that's what he taught you to do?
Chancellor: He did.
NEA: Let's listen to you playing "Billy in the Lowground". [Music] Jim, tell us what we just heard.
Chancellor: Okay, now that was the old tune, "Billy in the Lowground" and I think I recorded that maybe back in the eighties, sometime or another, but the old tune is a real simple melody. If you note, every time I repeated the melody I would do it a little differently and so that's kind of what I got from Benny. You know in some ways there's some similarities to it and jazz, because the jazz player's always embellishing the melody and so you would rarely hear it the same way twice, so that's what I got from Benny.
NEA: You mentioned earlier that fiddle contests, are really, really important for Texas fiddling. Describe what happens in a contest, how does it work?
Chancellor: The contests usually have a panel of judges, typically three, at least three to five. The fiddlers prefer to have a fiddler judge them, so that's who they'll usually pick and many times if there weren't a lot of people participating, they would have one age group judge the other age group. Like the young players might judge the old timers and the old timers likewise judge the young. They would ask that you usually play at least two styles, one a waltz and they ask you to play an old time fiddle tune. What they're looking for is to see how broad your skill level is. Somebody can play a quick tune, play it pretty peppy and get through it, but if they slow down and do a waltz, it kind of takes more control and more skill. So they're looking for execution, they're looking for how authentic the tune is, if you haven't drifted too far from the melody, and of course the natural things of good timing and those are predominately the things you're wanting to hear and if overall they have a nice sound. They judge them on points, usually from 70 to 100 points. So if I was judging somebody and they're playing, and their timing was off, then I would mentally click off maybe a point against them, if they missed a lick or something.
NEA: And then does it go to semi-finals? How many rounds are there typically or does that change from contest to contest?
Chancellor: It changes but usually there's a division, like a winner in that division, and it's usually classified by age, and then all the winners of the age divisions will compete for a grand championship and then out of that they will select the overall contest winner.
NEA: Tell me about your first contest.
Chancellor: Oh my, I remember it well. I think I was fourteen, I'd just met Benny about a year ago and I could barely get through a fiddle tune and I went out -- this will show you how subjective the contest judging is sometimes -- I went out to a little town West of Fort Worth called Strawn, Texas. And Benny was there and some of the great Texas fiddle players were there, and I won the contest. I was embarrassed to even walk up there and get that, but Benny was so gracious, he said, "No, you won, you go up there and get the prize." That's just the kind of person he was, and nobody complained. I mean all the fiddlers knew that I wasn't the best fiddler there, I could hardly even play. But I was pretty happy.
NEA: And you ended up going on a television show.
Chancellor: I did, when I was sixteen, and it was my first time in New York. I got a call -- actually we didn't even have a telephone then, but the people who were close to where we lived got a call from the producers of To Tell the Truth and they had read in the paper where I'd won a contest, the world champion contest, so they said well, we want you to be on this program and we'll fly you up here. Of course I'd never flown on an airplane. And now I just can't even imagine my 16-year-old child getting on an airplane by himself and going to New York, but Mark Goodson talked to me and said, "Let me tell you what to do. You fly in, you get on the bus and go to the city. You go to the city and get a cab to take you to The Victoria Hotel. And I've got you a room reserved and the next morning you'll come over to the studios at Park Avenue and we'll record you." So I did it, I don't know how in the world I ever made it, but I got there, and I was pretty excited about it. I think we won $500, and we had to divide that among the panels, but of course that was a lot of money to me then.
NEA: You were learning from Benny and other musicians but you also listened to a lot of old records, didn't you?
Chancellor: I did. A lot of old records. And as I said, in the contest that I went to there were a lot of old timers that took an interest in me as a young person because really there weren't that many young people playing the old fiddle music so I started learning from them. There weren't that many recordings, but a few recordings of the old music. I started getting as much material as I could.
NEA: You won quite a few contests?
Chancellor: I won quite a few, and this is kind of interesting because back when I started a big first prize was $100. So I never won any huge amounts of money, but that was kind of secondary to the thrill of winning the contests and there were quite a few reporters. It was kind of a novelty for me to be playing the fiddle, and winning the contests, so there was a lot of media, well not a lot, but local newspapers were taking pictures and writing stuff about it. All those articles were collected by my Mom and Dad and kept in a scrapbook, which I still have.
NEA: You were the second fiddler in the history of the World Championship in Crockett, Texas, to be undefeated three consecutive times.
Chancellor: I was and my teacher, Benny, was the first one to do that. This contest that we were in, which is called the World's Fiddle Festival, their rule was that after you won three times then you had to retire from competition for a while then you could come back and be a judge, but you couldn't compete again. So after that I had to put aside my competition. They changed that later and several years later I went back and won it three more times in a row, so now they don't have that rule.
NEA: You joined the Army and worked for Southwest Airlines. How old were you then?
Chancellor: I was about maybe late twenties or early thirties. I'd been in the Army and I'd worked at odd, different jobs and then I met this man through teaching his daughter how to play the fiddle and he offered me a job in the airline business. The first job I had was Customer Relations Director, I was the complaint person, but I stayed with that for twenty some odd years and raised my family and then a lot of different things changed so now I have a lot more time to play than I could in those years.
NEA: Now when you were working at Southwest would you practice occasionally? Would you play at friends' houses, at parties?
Chancellor: I continued to play and there was always somebody wanting me to go play at some kind of a function. And as it turned out there were a lot of opportunities within my job; I would play for company parties and that worked out good because they were very supportive of my playing so they'd use me whenever they had an opportunity.
NEA: And you took early retirement?
Chancellor: I retired in 2000, and started trying to compete more. I got pretty active in the competitions for a few years and then I realized that it's probably time to let the youngsters take over, so I don't compete as much as I used to.
NEA: You were also pretty instrumental in recording this music for the first time.
Chancellor: Yes, it probably goes back to my Dad's interest in promoting the commercial side of my plans because at that time you could go to a studio and record, and we had these little 45 RPM records that I made back in the sixties, and those records really did get around the country. It was kind of interesting because I've talked to a lot of people that are now in the entertainment business who will tell me, "I listened to your records when I was learning," so it's kind of neat to hear that. But there wasn't as many fiddle players recording fiddle music then. So yeah, all those old 45s I finally put on a CD. People still ask, do you have any of those singles? And I'll say "No, but I've got a CD."
NEA: Do you still practice?
Chancellor: I do. I have a little studio now out in my barn, so I get out there, play my fiddle and try to keep my chops up.
NEA: How many tunes do you think you have in your head?
Chancellor: Oh, you know I haven't a clue, but I know it's got to be hundreds, maybe thousands. And the reason I say that is because I know tunes that I've never tried to play. Of course I play strictly by ear ? I never learned how to read music ? so it's almost like if somebody will say "Do you know this tune?" And I'll probably say "No, I don't." But you know the old joke, "Hum a few bars and I'll get it." But it is interesting how your mind will record something and it may be tunes that I've never played but oddly enough I know them. I did try to write down how many tunes I knew one time and I gave up after about four or five hundred.
NEA: Do you have a favorite fiddle?
Chancellor: I do, I have a fiddle that I've had now for about 25 years that a friend of mine gave me. It's not pedigreed, it's just an old fiddle but it's one that I really like. And I have a fiddle that I'm very proud of, it's a fiddle that Eck Robertson's traveling companion played. Eck traveled with a man named Henry Gilliland around the country. They were both fiddlers and Henry had this old fiddle that had all kinds of mother of pearl decorations on it, and my Dad had traded for that fiddle. So Eck came to our house, and my Dad was showing him that fiddle and he said, "Where did you get Henry's fiddle?" We were all just shocked -- who's Henry? And as it turned out, that fiddle had this great history and it's almost uncanny that it landed in our family again and back in the acquaintance of Eck Robertson.
NEA: Is that your favorite fiddle?
Chancellor: Not from the tone and playing, but in my heart, yeah it's an important instrument. The fiddle that I play now, I think it kind of matches my personality. I'm pretty quiet, as a rule, and this fiddle is kind of a gentle sound, it's not a bright and brashy sound, and it has such a nice, warm tone that I can get all the little subtleties that I'm trying to get in my music and it always comes through for me, so it's very responsive.
NEA: Now Eck Robertson was somebody you collaborated with, someone you played with. Tell us about him.
Chancellor: Eck Robertson, well as some would say, he is kind of the father of Country music because he made the first recording of fiddle music. And some would say, well that's kind of the launch pad for Country music as we know it now. But the story went that Eck came to New York and he just barged into the studio and said, "Hello, I'm Eck Robertson, I'm here to record some fiddle music." And he was so out front about it I guess they just said, "Oh, come on in." And he recorded "Sally Goodin" and "Arkansas Traveler". And I believe he may have recorded alone, just standing there at the microphone playing. And that recording is still available, you can still find it on the internet. He lived in Amarillo, Texas, and when I met him, and he was quite a character. He was kind of like the old vaudeville entertainer, he was all about entertainment. But I got to learn some great tunes from him and he had one he called Lost Indian and he played that and I learned it.
NEA: Is there a favorite tune that you have?
Chancellor: Well my favorites have changed over the years. I'm really drawn to a lot of the simple old melodies now that I didn't use in the competitions. There's actually two tunes that I play a lot. One of them is called "Sugar in the Gourd", and I haven't recorded it yet but it's an old, old tune, a real simple melody but real fun to play. Then the other one is one called "Natchez Under the Hill". And that goes back to Natchez, Mississippi, during the Civil War. That was kind of a strategic point on the Mississippi River and they had a part of that town there on the banks and they called it under the hill and that's where the gambling and the carousing went on. And naturally they made a fiddle tune out of it. But I am kind of drawn to the more simple, kind of primitive sounding fiddle tunes now.
NEA: What about waltzes?
Chancellor: I love waltzes, in fact they're one of my favorites. My Dad wrote a waltz called "A Chancellor Waltz" and so I've played that a lot and a lot of people have recorded that tune and I'm happy for that. He must have written that tune maybe in the sixties because he wrote the basic melody and actually Benny participated in kind of adding some embellishment to it. He should have some of the credit for that because he was so capable in taking a simple tune and making it a little fancy.
NEA: Well Jim, now you're teaching, you spend a lot of time teaching young fiddle players.
Chancellor: Yes, and I guess if you live long enough you become a legend. I have had quite a few people ask me to come in and teach and I enjoy meeting the young people. Not all of them are young; some adults want to learn too. I'm like the last connection to the Texas Music greats, the Texas champions, and so they ask me to do that and I like it, it's fine. And I teach those students just like I learned -- I sit down with them note for note and we play the tunes until they get it by ear. Now sometimes if somebody has transcribed a tune I'll say, "well you can have the transcription if you like it," but usually I ask them to learn it by ear. I think it's better that way.
NEA: Tell me about when you heard you were receiving a National Heritage fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Chancellor: I talked to Barry [Bergey] and luckily I was there to answer that call because that was great. He told me that I won the award and I was just in shock, but what a nice way to commemorate my music. I'm so happy about that. So I get to go up and get that award in the Library of Congress, my goodness, and then I think we're going to have a concert and play a couple tunes for an audience and my kids are just all a twitter about it.
Photo by Alan Govenar
2010 National Heritage Fellow, Jim "Texas Shorty" Chancellor talks about the great tradition of Texas fiddling. [25:43]