Jim Chancellor is a legend in Texas fiddling circles. In the late 1950s, when the Texas fiddle world was dominated by adult men, a teenager named "Texas Shorty" Chancellor won three consecutive world championships at Crockett, Texas one of the most prestigious Texas fiddle contests. His appearance on the contest scene set the Texas fiddling world on its ear and even resulted in an appearance by Jim on network television. Jim has impacted modern contest fiddling in several ways. As one of the first students of master fiddler Benny Thomasson, he helped establish Thomasson's approach as the model for the modern contest style. Also, at a time when old-time Texas fiddling seemed to be losing fans, he ushered in a new era in which young people were increasingly attracted to fiddling and contests. And as one of the first Texas fiddlers to market recordings, his arrangements had an impact on fiddlers of all ages.
Jim credits his father, James Houston Chancellor, with getting him and his brothers into music: "When I was, I think, seven, my dad had played, but had not really done anything with his music He was kind of a trader and he had traded for a mandolin He made a deal with my older brother and I that whichever instrument we chose would be ours I decided to play the mandolin and my brother had already started playing a little bit on the guitar. So he played the guitar and sang and I started trying to pick out tunes My first try at playing was picking out melodies that my mother hummed to me I remember one that I picked out was 'Buffalo Gals.' I never really started chording I remember starting off just picking tunes out picking melodies My dad had always had aspirations to be a country music entertainer a professional which never happened. But when we came along and had an interest in musicthat became his avenue to achieve that goal through us. So he encouraged us, perhaps even more than encouraged leaned on us a little bit to play, practice a lot and to do something with our music."
Jim and his brother Alan performed as "Texas Al and Shorty," a name their dad helped pick out. The guitar and mandolin duo performed at music shows in little towns all over North Texas and even had a weekly fifteen minute radio program on KTER in Terrell, Texas. Jim was around nine years old at the time and Alan was about twelve.
Several unrelated events conspired to cause Jim to take up the fiddle. After meeting a local dance fiddler named Leford Hall, Jim became interested in the fiddle and started trying to play. Shortly after this, James Chancellor had a chance encounter that would change his son's musical direction. James had read in the paper about Benny Thomasson winning the 1955 World's Champion Fiddle Festival in Crockett, Texas. Later, while traveling through Arlington, Texas, he just happened to meet Thomasson at a service station. Impressed by Thomasson's fiddling, Chancellor quickly arranged to make tape recordings which he played for his boys. Jim remembers his reaction when he first heard Thomasson's fiddling: "I just couldn't get over how pretty his music was. That pretty much sunk the hook that I wanted to take up fiddle rather than mandolin." This incredible coincidence shaped Jim's musical future and very soon Jim was taking regular lessons from Thomasson. One of the first tunes he learned was "Sally Johnson." Chancellor remembers, "He taught me just like I've taught a lot of people over the years just going from note to note. Going over and over it and letting me learn the melody. Then I would go home and kind of woodshed it for a week He was really patient a great teacher."
Once Jim was able to play a few tunes, he started attending various fiddle get-togethers and jam sessions where he met a who's-who of Texas fiddlers. "I've compared the luck that I had in learning to play the fiddle with an artist being born on the same street as Michelangelo, Van Gogh and Picasso having everybody on his block that he could meet with and learn from." Jim started going to contests with Benny, at first playing rhythm for him and learning to play fiddle at the same time. Jim remembers contests at Gilmer, Crockett, Athens and other Texas towns where he heard hot fiddling from Major Franklin, Norman and Vernon Soloman, Bryant Houston and others. The Red River Exposition contest in Paris, Texas, attracted all of these fiddlers and Eck Robertson, who had traveled from Amarillo to play. Over the next years, Jim learned tunes and techniques from all these great fiddlers and while Benny was the primary influence, Jim feels they all contributed to his style.
Eck Robertson was a legend in the Texas fiddle world and still a good fiddler when Jim met him. They became good friends and Jim and his dad visited Eck often at his home in Amarillo. "Amarillo Waltz" is a tune that Jim learned from Eck. This trademark Robertson tune is closely related to "Kiss Me Again Waltz" and features an unusual chord progression. Jim recalls Eck's comments on a home recording of a jam session, when Eck was about to play "Amarillo Waltz." "OK boys, put your guitars down, I ain't never found nobody yet that can second me on this. I'm going to play it by myself!"
There were very few young players at these contests. Jim remembers only a few fiddlers in their twenties, but none younger. In those early days, Jim was often referred to as "that kid fiddler" and everyone knew who they were talking about. He won his first contest at Shawn, Texas, in 1957 at the age of fourteen. When Jim was fifteen, his brother Alan stopped playing and left home, so Jim's performing name was shortened to "Texas Shorty."
Benny Thomasson went on to win the "World's Champion" title at Crockett a total of three years ('55, '56, '57.) The contest rules of the time required that a three-time champ be "retired" and therefore was unable to ever compete in the contest again. In 1958, Norman Soloman won the Crockett contest. Jim "Texas Shorty" Chancellor entered the 1959 contest. Jim's mother wrote a press release about the contest which reveals fascinating details. The three age divisions were 75 years and older, 50 to 75 and 50 and under. After winning in his age group, Jim played the winners of the two other groups. He won this round, which entitled him to play in competition with the defending champion, Norman Soloman. Mrs. Chancellor's colorful account records the tunes played by each contestant as well as the close score which ultimately found Jim the winner. Fans were astounded to learn that a sixteen year old boy had beat out a field of mature fiddlers to win one of Texas' most prestigious old-time fiddling competitions.
As the youngest fiddler to ever win the title of "World's Champion Fiddler," Jim was featured in newspaper articles across the state and on the news wire services. He was featured on the New York- based television program "To Tell the Truth." Jim went on to win the Crockett contest in 1960 and 1961 and was retired as "World Champion" at age nineteen. The only other retired champion was his teacher, Benny Thomasson.
In the early 1960s, there were very few fiddle recordings available Tommy Jackson's square dance records were out, but Howard "Howdy" Forrester's landmark fiddling record was still several years away. Jim made a series of 45 rpm "Texas Shorty" records on his own label. These were all "one take" recordings, many of which were made in Dallas at WFAA studios. Jim's records were sold at contests and music shows wherever he played. They quickly became collectibles and tape copies were passed among fiddle music fans. As recently as five years ago, the author was given a homemade cassette of Texas Shorty records by a devoted fan who had collected the records over the years. Jim is currently preparing a CD of these recordings along with extensive notes and photographs. It is scheduled for a summer 2000 release. Jim's dad came up with the idea to change the titles of the songs on the records. His thinking was that if a customer went to a record store and asked for "Black Mountain Rag," several records might have that title, but "Black Diamond Rag" would only appear on Texas Shorty's record.
After a few more years of competing and winning at contests throughout Texas, Jim joined the Army Reserve and a year or two later got married. His desire to be a full-time musician faded as family commitments increased. It was obvious to him that the music career dream was largely his father's. He continued to play at local contests and with friends in the Dallas area and began a career in management with Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, from which he has recently retired. He continued to chalk up contest wins, including four times at the Texas State Championship in Hallettsville, where he was inducted into the Texas Fiddlers Hall of Fame, and the 1979 Grand Master's in Nashville, Tennessee. When the World's Fiddle Festival at Crockett changed its rules, allowing retired champions to compete again, Jim entered and won the contest two more times for a total of five championships. He recorded The Best Of Texas Shorty in the 1970s, accompanied by his younger brother Robert, who had become an accomplished player in the Texas rhythm guitar style, Jerry Thomasson on tenor guitar, and Elden Graham on bass. This album reveals a more mature Texas Shorty than the earlier 45 records. The force and power is still there, but his tone is fuller and prettier.
In 1980, Jim met Dallas multi-instrumentalist Gerald Jones. Gerald's electric tastes appealed to Jim and the two began to make music together. They eventually added Leigh Taylor on bass and began performing around the Dallas area as "Acoustic Plus." The group plays an attractive mix of country, swing, pop, bluegrass and of course, old time Texas fiddle tunes. In the 1980s, Jim recorded Texas Shorty; World Champion Fiddler, which featured a range of tunes reflecting his broad musical tastes. The musicians include Mark O'Connor, Gerald Jones, Robert Bowlin, and Sam Bush, as well as his old picking partners Elden Graham and Robert Chancellor. In 1994, Jim recorded Old Sport, an album of old time tunes accompanied by Nashville songwriter/performer and good friend John Hartford.
Today, at fifty-seven, Jim is playing better than ever. His early retirement has allowed him to once again focus on music making. His plans include releasing several CDs of fiddle music drawing from his extensive collection of home recordings. These projects promise to show great fiddlers such as Benny Thomasson, Bryant Houston, Norman and Vernon Soloman and others at the peak of their playing. Jim is modest about his accomplishments, but he belongs on the list of great Texas fiddlers along with his heroes. We can hardly wait to see what he does next!
Fans can check out news of upcoming releases and events at www.TexasShorty.com.
[Joe Carr teaches fiddle, guitar, and mandolin at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas. He has over twenty instructional videos available from Mel Bay Publications, Texas Music and Video, and Ridge Runner.]