Photo by Alan Govenar
2010 National Heritage Fellow, Jim "Texas Shorty" Chancellor talks about the great tradition of Texas fiddling. [25:43]
Jo Reed: That was Lonesome Fiddle Blues performed by 2010 National Heritage Fellow, Jim "Texas Shorty" Chancellor.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Jim Chancellor or "Texas Shorty", as he is more commonly known, is one of the masters of Texas-style fiddling.
Born in Dallas in 1943, Jim was something of a child star, playing the mandolin with his brother Allen over KTER radio by the age of nine. He was the Shorty of The Texas Allen Shorty Show. In his teens, he met the great Texas fiddler, Benny Thomassen. He found a teacher in Thomassen as well as a new instrument. Shorty picked up a fiddle and never looked back. If you fiddle in Texas, then you participate in the famous Texas fiddle contests. Shorty became the youngest fiddler to win the World Championship. He then proceeded to become the second fiddler in the history of the event to win the contest three consecutive times.
Shorty spent years interviewing traditional musicians and researching performances on records in order to learn the subtleties of past Texas fiddlers. His arrangements of old time fiddle tunes have had an impact on fiddlers of all ages and he's played with some of the best including Thomassen, Eck Robertson, John Hartford, and most recently, Mark O'Connor.
In 2010, Jim Texas Shorty Chancellor was given an NEA National Heritage Fellowship.
I spoke with Texas Shorty, soon after he was told about his award. I began our conversation by asking him to talk about the role music played in his childhood home.
Texas Shorty: There were five in our family, three brothers and two sisters. We all had an interest in music, but mostly the boys. The girls loved music but they didn't play music so that was what we did, didn't have television, didn't have 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.
Jo Reed: Now your dad loved music, did he not?
Texas Shorty: He loved it and he would have loved to have been in the professional music business, but as it worked 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. He got some success kind of through me and through my brothers. He got to have a little bit of that dream through us.
Jo Reed: Now you started off on the mandolin.
Texas Shorty: 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, well whichever instrument you choose, well 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.
Jo Reed: Did your Dad teach you or how did that work?
Texas Shorty: He did, but you know, the first tune I picked out on the mandolin my mother taught me and it was Buffalo Gals, I think was the tune and she hummed it to me and I found those notes on the Mandolin. But my Dad did, he did teach us a lot about music and so everybody had part in our learning.
Jo Reed: You ended up on the radio, that's how you became Texas Shorty.
Texas Shorty: Yes. My brother Allen was older and taller than I, and I was a little short, round kid, so my Dad came up with an idea we would call ourselves "Texas Al and Shorty". So we lived in this little community on the edge of Dallas and so 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 that's how we did it and we did that for a few years and then Allen decided to go out and seek his fortune and it just left me. So without Texas Al it was just Texas Shorty.
Jo Reed: Do you remember the first radio show?
Texas Shorty: I was terrified and it's kind of interesting, me sitting here talking to you, because when I had that radio show I wouldn't have been able to say a word, I was so terrified. And in fact they would joke me, would joke with me, the staff that it would be "Texas Al and his silent partner, Shorty."
Jo Reed: So what happened when Al left? Did you have to start talking?
Texas Shorty: I had to. My Dad coached me on how to talk, what to say and so I started practicing and sure enough it worked out okay and then we played 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 is fiddle contests.
Jo Reed: How did you get to the fiddle?
Texas Shorty: Okay, when I was thirteen, my Dad met a man named Benny Thomassen, who lived in the mid-cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, and Benny had just won the World Champion Fiddle Contest and when Dad met him he was so excited about it because Benny was such a fabulous musician and so 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. And then of course through Benny, he played in 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 they 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.
Jo Reed: So it was literally a tradition truly handed down.
Texas Shorty: Absolutely, it surely was.
Jo Reed: Now talk about Benny Thomassen because he is quite a name in Texas fiddling, isn't he?
Texas Shorty: 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 was, well first of all interesting he was a car repairman, a body man, a paint and body shop. That was his occupation. But 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 you know 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.
Jo Reed: Can you explain what makes Texas fiddling distinctive, how is it different?
Texas Shorty: Okay, if you go back to the roots of fiddling you find a lot of its 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 before and so it was, it was kind of repetitious and lots of rhythm. Well when dancing became not as prevalent in that, 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 and 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, and his goal was to make them interesting but at the same time to keep the identity of the tune. If he played the like old tune of Sally Goodin' or Billy in the Lowground. Which both of them are very simple melodies, 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 and the other was that I use when I have a class, I usually use the example of the modern word Pixels, which I'm using in my Scrabble games now, but what I think Benny did was he added pixels to the tunes so that they were, they sounded more flowing, and more feathered the edges so to speak that all of the sounds of it was very beautiful and more of a listening piece then a dancing piece maybe.
Jo Reed: And that's what he taught you to do?
Texas Shorty: He did.
Jo Reed: So what if we hear you playing Billy in the Lowground, does that seem like a good idea?
Texas Shorty: Yeah, that's great.
Jo Reed: Okay Jim, tell us what we just heard.
Texas Shorty: 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, but every time I repeated the melody I would do it a little differently and so that's kind of what I got from Benny. 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 the same way twice, so that's what I got from Benny.
Jo Reed: Let me ask you, you mentioned earlier that contests, fiddle contests are really, really important for Texas fiddling. Describe that, what happens in a contest, how does it work?
Texas Shorty: Okay the contests usually have a panel of judges, typically three to five. The fiddlers prefer to have a fiddler judge them, so that's what they'll usually pick and many times if there weren't a lot of people participating, they have one age group judge the other age group. Like if the young players might judge the old timers and the old timers likewise judge the young. So they would ask that you play, at least two styles, one a waltz and they ask you to play an old time fiddle tune. And what they're looking for is to see how broad your skill level is sometimes somebody can play a quick tune, play it pretty peppy and get through it, but if they slow down and do a waltz, and it kind of takes more control and more skill and 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 good timing and those are predominately the things you're wanting to hear and overall they have a nice sound. So they judge them on points usually from seventy to a hundred points. So if I was judging somebody and they're playing and I thought their timing was off, then I would mentally click off maybe a point against them you know if they missed a lick or something.
Jo Reed: Tell me about your first contest.
Texas Shorty: Oh my, I remember it well. Because I was, I think I was fourteen, I had just been playing the fiddle for about a year and I could barely get through a fiddle tune and 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 for the great Texas fiddle players were there in that contest, and I won the contest. Oh 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. So that's just who he was, the kind of person he was, nobody complained, all the fiddlers knew that I wasn't the best fiddler there, I could hardly even play. But I was pretty happy.
Jo Reed: You won quite a few contests?
Texas Shorty: Won quite a few and this is kind of interesting because back when I started a big prize was 100 dollars. The first prize was 100 dollars, you were pretty excited. 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 contest, so local newspapers were taking pictures and writing stuff about it, which all those articles were collected by my Mom and Dad and kept in a scrapbook, which I still have.
Jo Reed: You were the second fiddler in the history of the event to be undefeated three consecutive times.
Texas Shorty: I was. My teacher, Benny was the first one to do that and this contest that we were in, which is called the Worlds 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.
Jo Reed: You couldn't compete again ever?
Texas Shorty: That was the rule then, they changed that later.
Jo Reed: I would hope so.
Texas Shorty: So later they changed it and I went back and won it three more times in a row, now they don't have that rule.
Jo Reed: So Jim you're getting older now, with greater responsibilities and fiddling full time becomes kind of difficult. You joined the Army, you worked for Southwest Airlines, you didn't stop playing, but you had to draw back.
Texas Shorty: Oh, yes I did and I met the man who hired me at the airline through my fiddle–-
Jo Reed: How old were you then?
Texas Shorty: I was, let's see I was about maybe twenty, late twenties or early thirties.
Jo Reed: And you'd been in the Army?
Texas Shorty: I'd been in the Army and I'd worked at odd 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. And so as it turned out I 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.
Jo Reed: Now when you were working at Southwest would you practice occasionally? Would you play at friends houses, at parties, how would it work?
Texas Shorty: 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 company, I would play for company parties and so that was, that worked out good because they were very supportive of my playing so they'd use me whenever they had an opportunity.
Jo Reed: You took early retirement?
Texas Shorty: Early and retired in 2000, and then started trying to compete more, like I did and then 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.
Jo Reed: You were also pretty instrumental in recording this music for the first time.
Texas Shorty: I was. 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, well I listened to your records when I was learning, so it's kind of neat to hear that. There wasn't as many fiddle players recording fiddle music then. All those old 45s I finally put on a CD so that people can–- they still ask, do you have any of those singles? And I'll say "No, but I've got a CD."
Jo Reed: So do you still practice?
Texas Shorty: 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.
Jo Reed: This is a completely unfair question, but how many tunes do you think you have in your head?
Texas Shorty: Oh, I haven't a clue, but I know it's got to be hundreds, maybe thousands. And the reason I say that is I know tunes that I've never tried to play. I hear that melody and of course I play strictly by ear, I don't-- 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, so from that standpoint it may be tunes that I've never played but oddly enough I know them -- But I did try to write down how many tunes I knew one time and I gave up after about four or five hundred.
Jo Reed: Do you have a favorite fiddle?
Texas Shorty: I do, I have a fiddle that I've had now for about twenty-five 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.
Jo Reed: Why is your favorite fiddle your favorite fiddle?
Texas Shorty: 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, 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.
Jo Reed: Eck Robertson, somebody you collaborated with, someone you played with, tell us about him.
Texas Shorty: Yes, Eck Robertson, some would say, is 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 he came to New York and the studio -- it wasn't RCA Victor, but something like that, he just walked in, 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 and playing it. He was quite a character. He was kind of like the old vaudeville entertainer, he was all about entertainment, he was a great player, but it was about entertaining. If you played a tune to Eck he would usually stop you after you played a while and said "Now let me play you the original. I got the original on that." But I got to learn some great tunes from him.
Jo Reed: Is there a favorite tune that you have?
Texas Shorty: 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 one that I like a lot now, 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, real simple melody but real fun to play and then the other one is one called Natchez Under the Hill. And that goes back to Natchez, Mississippi during the Civil War. I am kind of drawn to the more simple, kind of primitive sounding fiddle tunes now.
Jo Reed: What about waltzes?
Texas Shorty: I love waltzes. 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.
Jo Reed: I thought we'd play a little bit of it.
Jo Reed: I like the waltzes.
Texas Shorty: Oh, thank you. I do too, I love the waltzes.
Jo Reed: And your Dad wrote that, when did he write that?
Texas Shorty: He must have written that maybe in the sixties because he wrote the basic melody and actually Benny participated in adding some embellishment to it, he should have some of the credit for that, he was so capable in taking a simple tune and making it a little fancy.
Jo Reed: Well Jim, now you're teaching, you spend a lot of time teaching young fiddle players.
Texas Shorty: 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. 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 just walk through the tunes until they get it by ear. I think it's better that way.
Jo Reed: You received a National Heritage fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Texas Shorty: I was so excited about that I just couldn't believe that, yes.
Jo Reed: Tell me about that moment you talked to Barry, Barry Bergey.
Texas Shorty: I talked to Barry and luckily I was there to answer that call because that was great and 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 and my kids are just all a twitter about it.
Jo Reed: Literally, I'm sure. Everyone was just so happy to see your name on that list so many, many congratulations to you.
Texas Shorty: I know, it's just wonderful, I'm so happy about that.
Jo Reed: Thank you so much for giving me your time today, I appreciate it.
Texas Shorty: Thank you Jo.
That was 2010 National Heritage Fellow, Fiddle Jim Texas Shorty Chancellor.
You've been listening to Art works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts, Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor
Excerpt from Lonesome Fiddle Blues, "Chancellor's Waltz" "Billy in the Lowground," from the album The Best of Texas Shorty, performed by and used courtesy of Texas Shorty.
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