Now in his 70’s, Jim “Texas Shorty” Chancellor has has the pleasure of being fiddler since the ripe age of 12 and recently he was one of the judges at Athens-Old-Fiddlers Reunion, an event that is even older than him in its 80’s.
His first venture into music was on the mandolin when he was only 9 years old, playing with his brother, Allen, on the radio in the county of Dallas and they were known as “Texas Al and Shorty” for years until his brother left and opted to go solo. He still plays today, most for the love of it but also to preserve the tradition.
He first competed as a fiddler at 16 at the Athens Reunion and has stopped competing for himself at this time but still remains involved. Currently living in Rockwall, on forty acres of beautiful land, he says that he tries never to miss the going to Athens, even if he foregoes other events and has participated as a judge for a few years now, since he stopped competing. He has already banked numerous championship fiddling victories under his belt, including multiple Texas State and Grand Masters accolades, and he’s ready to step aside for other players as long as he stays involved in the tradition himself in some capacity. In 2010, Chancellor was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Music Fellowship by the Library of Congress, award to only 10 people in the arts.
Married for twenty four years to Ruthie, a bass fiddler and a pianist, the two have 5 children and 8 grandchildren, of which none have chosen to play the fiddle. He says his father played the fiddle which got him started and he then was educated by Ben Thomasson for years. He saw Thomasson play for the first time at the Athens competition, an event that means far more than just money to the people of the area.
Chancellor describes the contest as a important part of fiddling heritage and consequently, American tradition. If you explore history, old time fiddling was always featured with even stories of Thomas Jefferson playing “Grey Eagle” on the fiddle. There was a fiddler on the Lewis and Clark expedition, as it was always an easy instrument for people to travel with in their possession and fiddling has always been the music of the people.
Chancellor describes fiddlers like Mark O’Connor and Bennie Thommason as being the ones that have kept the tradition alive for the youth, teaching them the songs by ear as so much is not written down. He says that the contests have been a huge part of engaging the younger generations and are part of the American treasure.
Mary Ensign of the Trinity Valley Community College Registrars’ Office has known Chancellor for 43 years and says he has always been a part of the Athens competition. She says that he came to the event as one of the best fiddlers and even now, he spends his time explaining techniques to the audience and giving demonstrations. Ensign describes his knowledge as extensive and says that he is always available whenever someone needs him. Chancellor is a fiddler that everyone can depend on, both on and off the stage.