‘Texas Shorty’ is a staple at each year’s Old Fiddlers Reunion
Jeff Riggs / The Athens Review
Jim “Texas Shorty” Chancellor has played the fiddle since he was 12 years-old. Today, he is 70 and plans to be a judge once again at this year’s Athens Old Fiddlers Reunion — which is turning 82.
Chancellor first began playing the mandolin at the age of 9 over the airwaves of KTER radio in Dallas County with his brother, Allen. It was then that he became “Shorty” of “The Texas Al and Shorty Show.” Later, Allen left the duo and Chancellor continued as a solo act.
Today, he continues to play — in part for the enjoyment, and in part because he believes it is part of American heritage.
“I competed first in Athens when I was about 16 years old,” he said. “I guess one of the last competitions I have been in on a national basis was the Senior National Oldtime Fiddler’s contest in Boise, Idaho.”
Chancellor, who currently resides on 40 acres near Rockwall, has always enjoyed either competing or judging during the Athens Old Fiddlers Reunion.
“Most of the time, I have always tried to not miss Athens,” he said. Chancellor has judged the Athens contests for the past three years.
Among his other fiddling awards, Chancellor has won the State of Texas Oldtime Fiddler’s Championship in Hallettsville. This is one he has won more than one time. He has also won the Grand Masters Championship in Nashville, Tenn.
When he was 16 years of age, he won the championship in Crockett called the World Fiddle Festival.
“I won that three times in a row,” he said.
In 2010, he was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Music Fellowship granted to 10 people in various fields of art, including music. This award is offered in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Chancellor said he has been paid for playing individual venues, but has never played for a living. He made ends meet at Southwest Airlines, where he retired from the position of Director of Ground Operations at Love Field for the airline in 2000.
He has been married to his wife, Ruthie, for 24 years, a woman who just happens to play the piano and bass fiddle.
They have five children and eight grandchildren. None play the fiddle, but Chancellor loves them just the same.
Chancellor’s interest in the fiddle was heightened when his father introduced him to a legendary fiddler as a teen-ager.
“When I was in my teens, my daddy was a peddler. He stopped in Arlington and met Bennie Thomasson there,” Chancellor said. “My father and I talked about music, and from that, he got acquainted with Bennie, and heard Bennie play. He went out and bought a tape recorder and went over and recorded Bennie, and all of us were shocked by it. We went back to see Bennie. He just started to teach me.
“This caused him to put away my mandolin and I began to learn fiddle under Thomasson’s direct tutelage,” Chancellor continued. “However, the first time I ever went to Athens, I was playing the mandolin, and Bennie was playing the fiddle. He was competing, and I believe he won. He was just so much better than everybody else.”
He said his dad played the fiddle, and that got him started initially getting him interested in music in general. He played guitar, and Chancellor, in his teens, played the fiddle.
As for the Athens Fidder’s competition, Chancellor said the event means more than money to area.
“The old-time fiddle music is a critical part of our American heritage,” he said. “If you go back and review how it played out in history, oldtime fiddling was there. Thomas Jefferson played the fiddle. ‘Grey Eagle’ was one he played. There was also a fiddler on the Lewis and Clark expedition. It was an instrument that was pretty easy to transport. It was music of the people and remains so. Now thousands of kids are really attracted to it, so it is now very much a part of American musical scene.”
Chancellor remembers fiddler Mark O’Connor as one who was instrumental in making the art attractive to youth.
“He was a student of Bennie Thommason,” Chancellor said. “He has gained worldwide-acclaim. He has stimulated the interest from young people. The old-time fiddle contest was kind of the forum for a fiddler to play. And contests have been around for years and years. The interest and importance of that contest brings it to the American public. It’s one of our treasures.
Mary Ensign, who works for the Trinity Valley Community College Registrars Office, has worked with the fiddler’s competition for about 43 years. She said she has known Chancellor the entire time.
“He was coming to the event when I first started,” she said. “He is one of the best fiddlers. Last year, we had a little down time, and he explained techniques to the audience, and then he gave demonstrations. He would explain, and then he would show us. He’s so knowledgeable, and he can tell you and demonstrate it. He’s just a great guy. Anytime we ever needed anything, he was always there and willing. He’s someone you can really depend on.”