One of the major figures in Western swing fiddling, J.R. Chatwell was heavily influenced by the jazz violin style of his hero, hot jazz-era player Stuff Smith. He packed up his jazz licks and headed over to the country camp, putting such a zesty brilliance in his brief early recorded solos that it totally turned the heads of generations of fiddlers to follow, including Johnny Gimble, a star fiddler in both Western swing and country. Chatwell's name will inevitably come up if there's a discussion of working links between country and jazz, provided the people talking are fairly well informed about the subject. Although a younger generation of Texas musicians spearheaded by the loveable Doug Sahm took Chatwell under their wing and kept him in business long after a stroke took away his ability to fiddle, he still remains a fairly obscure figure. He was not a member of the Bob Wills band, so is not included in the pantheon surrounding this most famous of the Western swing bands. But he might as well be, because his playing style was such a big influence on the musicians in the Wills outfit. Later arrangements in this group by guitarist Eldon Shamblin in which various motifs of Texas swing fiddling were written down to be played by the Wills two- or three-man fiddle clusters meant that some of the classic "J.R." licks wound up codified right into the riffs of Wills and his Texas Playboys.
Chatwell took up fiddle as a teenager, playing mostly jazz and pop standards with his brother who picked a bit of guitar. Piano became his second instrument within a year or two. The music of Milton Brown and his band the Brownies was enormously popular at this time, and the Chatham boys would check out the group live whenever an opportunity presented itself. This is where Chatwell first heard and met Cliff Bruner, the lead fiddler in the Brownies and a musician who was known for inviting good local players onstage to take a crack. This is where Chatwell's early professional playing activities kicked off, as Bruner was impressed enough about what he had heard Chatwell play that he began spreading the word, particularly to his friend, the young fiddler Elmer Scarborough, who was putting together a new group called the Hi-Flyers and needed a fiddling partner. In 1936, Chatwell received a written invitation to join this band, and within a few days, he was off on the road. A month later his mentor Bruner showed up and told Chatwell to never mind the Hi Flyers. Now Bruner was starting his own band. He wanted Chatwell to join, but to play the piano and not the fiddle. His boogie woogie, blues, and barrelhouse chops were pretty good at this point, and Chatwell was pressured into agreement and relocated to Houston. The new band was called the Texas Wanderers, an accurate name considering the amount of roadwork it would do.
Chatwell was just too interested in playing fiddle, however, and within the year, left this position to join a band named the Modern Mountaineers. Originally formed by singer and pianist Smoky Wood, this group went through such regular and frequent personnel changes that it ended up having completely different musicians then when it started out, and playing different music to boot. But when Chatham joined it had something of a small jazz combo sound and direction. Chatham recorded with this band in 1937, already sounding like a cooking jazz fiddler. It would have been his first recording session, except that Bill Boyd's Cowboy Ramblers were working in the same studio in the morning and enlisted the fiddler to play on some of their tracks as well. The results of this extremely busy day in the studio have been reissued by labels such as Old Timey and String. There are only short solo segments served out to the fiddler, but he makes the best of them, inspiring one critic to write that Chatwell's breaks sound like blazing grasshoppers. There was a second session with the Modern Mountaineers which by the fall of 1937 had lost its leader and now boasted a total of three fiddlers. Chatham vocalized for the first time, both as a solo and in duets, including the highlight sung with Johnny Thames, "You Gotta Know How to Truck and Swing," very appropriate advice indeed.
Chatwell left this band the next year and went on to play with a selection of the most popular Texas bands of the day including the Light Crust Doughboys and a group led by Uncle John Wills before landing a gig in the band of Adolph Hofner, with whom he played off and on for the next two decades. This bandleader was pulling gold out of both ends of the Texas music mine by keeping together several outfits with overlapping players; one to play swing and the other to play polka. Chatham cut his first sides with a Hofner band called the San Antonians in 1941 for the Okeh label. The fiddle solo on the track "Sometimes" was a mindblower for young musicians, and Johnny Gimble recalls that fiddlers just had to learn this solo back then or be considered out of the bowing, so to speak. Hofner's recording career continued prolifically with releases on three or four other labels, but he switched fiddlers repeatedly and a listener will not find Chatwell present on any Hofner side randomly nabbed out of a used record pile.
During the breaks from the Hofner band, the fiddler, of course, kept busy with other collaborations. From 1945 through 1948 he played in Houston with a group called the Village Boys, which also featured Buddy Ray and Dickie Jones in its steaming fiddle triumvirate. In the early '50s, he played in Smiley Whitley's Texans and in the Lone Star Boys, a band out of south Texas led by Walter Kleypas. Buzz on this band is thick, as players from the era tend to pick it out as one of the best swing bands of the times. The overview of Chatham's activities in a bit more than the first two decades of his career shows that he surely livened up every group he was in. Chances are also good that on a majority of the recordings he made, his solos are the highlights of the music. Nonetheless, the format of this genre did not allow for the fiddler to have a great deal of space, no matter how hot he was. So if Chatwell was hoping to be able to communicate and develop ideas at length in the manner of a Stuff Smith or Joe Venuti side, than it is safe to assume he must have felt frustrated.
In 1968 he suffered a stroke which made it impossible for him to play the violin, although he was still able to perform on piano, as well as sing. He might have considered stepping back from performing in this situation, but instead became one of the first to benefit from an increase in interest in Western swing that started up just a few years after his medical problems. In the early '70s, the revival band Asleep at the Wheel helped maintain interest in Chatwell by recording one of his tunes, while he found an enthusiastic apprentice and lover of all things Texan in bandleader Doug Sahm. Sahm would sometimes invite the old man along on out-of-town road trips. In 1973 there was one such trip to New York City in which Chatwell was invited onstage at the Lone Star Cafe to sing. A description of this performance includes the detail that it took the elder statesman a good three minutes simply to cross the stage because he moved so slowly. Slow or not, he managed to solidify the binds to jazz by appearing on the 1971 album by forward-thinking jazzman Yusef Lateef, entitled Part of the Search. He also recorded with his big fan Johnny Gimble in that decade. The 1982 Edsel release Jammin' With J.R. and Friends features appearances by Texas country legend Willie Nelson and Sahm sidekicks Augie Meyers on keyboards and Ernie Durawa on drums. Still pounding the keys in the barrelhouse tradition, Chatwell was also commonly accused of stealing the show for his vocal performances in his later years.