Gilmer County native, longtime bluegrass picker passes at age 89
When speaking to the Times-Courier for a 2010 article about his family’s longtime interest in bluegrass music, Ralph Chancey related that he once postponed a heart operation because it conflicted with performing at the Ellijay Heart Fund Show, a long-running benefit concert for the American Heart Association and one of his favorite musical events.
“There’s a lot of us who’ve had heart trouble, and this is our way of helping to give something back the best way we know how,” he said then.
That’s just the kind of guy Chancey was, confirmed family and friends of the 89-year-old Gilmer County native who passed away Wednesday, Oct. 14, after contracting COVID-19.
“There wasn’t a finer gentleman anywhere. If you stayed around Ralph, (you saw) that he was just a super good man. He treated everybody with respect and like he wanted to be treated. If that didn’t rub off on you, there was something wrong with you. He took everybody into his home and treated them like family,” said close friend and bandmate, Jerry Hensley.
Music a family tradition
For many years, Chancey, who was born and raised in the Boardtown area of Cherry Log, made his living as a truck driver for Atlanta Motor Lines, said daughter, Diane Holt.
“There’s a story about him going to Atlanta after he got that job with $7 in his pocket. He found a boarding house, then went to the store and bought a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread. He was determined to make it on that $7 and he did. He got his first paycheck at the end of the week and went back home to get my mama and my sister, Cheryl, and took them back down there,” she said.
Driving a transfer truck allowed Chancey to support his family, but one of his favorite pastimes was playing and singing bluegrass and gospel music. Holt noted that making music was a family tradition that had been passed down from the time her dad was a youngster.
“Daddy always liked to have fun and see the fun stuff in life. He was a special person,” she said. “Our family has been involved in singing and music all our lives. We used to go camping, and Daddy would invite whoever he was playing music with at the time to go. He played with the Cox Brothers from Blue Ridge and they’d all come. We’d sit around the campfire and they would play music.”
Chancey learned to play an instrument as one of The Chancey Brothers, a bluegrass band that also included Ralph’s older brothers Chesley, John and Joe and his nephew, Donald.
“Music was a hobby of the brothers and they played together all over,” said daughter, Melanie Cantrell. “A professor from the University of Georgia came and wrote a book called Folk Visions and Voices. They’re in that book and also on an album at UGA.”
Chancey started out playing guitar, but his preferred instrument was the mandolin.
“He wanted to play (mandolin) like Bill Monroe,” said Cantrell about her dad’s admiration for the innovative bluegrass bandleader.
Music making was prevalent in the Boardtown home where Chancey and his wife, Irene, raised their five children, confirmed Holt and Cantrell. Both fondly remembered weekly get-togethers where different generations of family and friends gathered to share bluegrass picking, singing and laughter. The tradition carried on after the Chancey children became adults.
“We’d play card games like Rook or Rummy and Dominoes. Everybody was always welcome at mama and daddy’s house,” said Cantrell.
“On Friday or Saturday night, Mama would tell daddy to call everybody and tell them to come to the house to play music. We did a lot of that growing up,” Holt remembered. “There were several of us who would get together. We’d hang out and have a good time, but it also kept us out of trouble (growing up).”
Holt said, as a young woman, one of her aunts taught her how to buck dance. During live performances, Chancey would send her and Cantrell out on stage to kick up their heels and show off the energetic style of folk dance that’s similar to clogging.
“He would always call it ‘makin’ a fool.’ He’d say, ‘Y’all get out there and make a fool!’ A lot of people didn’t understand that, but he just wanted us to go and entertain the audience,” Holt said.
While his band, The Bluegrass Pickers, warmed up for an appearance at the 2010 Heart Fund Show, Chancey said, as a child, he and brother, Chesley, saw Roy Acuff perform in Epworth sometime in the 1940s. That led to decades of picking and singing, he added.
“They used to call it ‘hillbilly’ music back in the ‘30s, then the banjo and mandolin got in there and it got to be called bluegrass. I wouldn’t trade nothing for all the fun and all the good times I’ve had picking. I never did quit, really. I may not get out there like I used to, but I never have quit playing music because it’s something I still enjoy doing very much,” Chancey said then.
‘Real good about helping young people’
Music was also a way for Chancey to reach young people interested in taking up an instrument, noted Hensley.
Before he became Gilmer County’s coroner, Hensley played fiddle alongside Chancey, who taught him the correct fingering of the instrument.
“He taught a lot of kids music and helped them get started. He was real good about helping young people,” said Hensley.
Despite 24 years of age between them, the friendship that started when Hensley was 16 never ceased.
“He was the first (band) I ever played with,” Hensley said. “Me and his son, Gerald, were good friends in school, and I started coming over to their house. I was playing the banjo some, then I played the fiddle with them. I wasn’t very good then, so they taught all of us timing, how to play with a band and some songs to play. That’s how it started, and it went from then till Ralph wasn’t able to play (anymore).”
Chancey’s grandson, Brett Cantrell, said his “papaw” furthered his interest in both listening to and playing music, particularly bluegrass. Brett made his first appearance onstage with the family band at the Heart Fund Show when he was just 4 years old.
“I’d been around music all my life, but neither him, nor my parents forced me to sit down and practice or learn (an instrument). He did encourage me to, though. I was around 6 when he gave me a mandolin he’d played since, probably, the mid-’70s, and I beat around on that,” Brett said. “The first song he showed me how to play on the mandolin was one we called ‘Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,’ but it’s really called ‘Lonesome Road Blues.’ After I got a real banjo for my 12th birthday and got to where I could play that, he didn’t care nothing about me playing the mandolin anymore.”
By the time he was in high school, Brett was proficient in playing banjo, along with several other stringed instruments, in various bluegrass groups including his papaw’s.
“He wasn’t necessarily a virtuoso musician, but he knew how to connect with the people. I remember him saying the craziest stuff onstage and people laughing,” he said about Chancey. “Whether we were freezing to death on a trailer at a cookout or burning up in the middle of June at the ETC Bluegrass Festival, he wanted to be sure everybody was smiling, laughing and having a good time.”
Brett, now 28, shared some of the advice his granddad gave him about playing music in a live setting.
“There were a lot of things he’d say that were like his signature phrases,” he said. “Sometimes, when you’re playing out, people are having conversations and they’re not necessarily there for the music. He’d say, ‘Aw, Brett, don’t worry about it. All people want is a racket.’ He also told me, ‘Don’t worry about messing up because 90 percent of the people don’t know the difference.’ When I first started singing, I was a little nervous and he told me, ‘I don’t care if you’re singing in church or onstage or wherever, all you got to do is sing just as loud as you can holler!”
‘Whatever’s going on, you be happy’
Chancey’s love for helping others, which included playing numerous benefit concerts, was something else special about him, noted Holt and Cantrell.
“I can remember, when we were growing up, people would call asking if they could come play at a benefit for somebody who’d lost their house or broke a leg or needed surgery,” said Holt.
“He always said Christians ought to be the happiest people in the world, so he taught us to find the joy in anything. Whatever’s going on, you be happy. You do things for everybody else and ‘I’ comes last,” said Cantrell. “His favorite thing to do was play (music) for other people (including) the Lions Club Special Friends, for the Heart Fund Show and other benefits. He played at every Heart Fund Show but one (because) he had the flu one year. I think it was 49 shows he played at.”
Chancey was also very proud of being an elder at his longtime place of worship, Boardtown Church of Christ, noted Cantrell.
“It would have been his childhood church, but, at that time, they met in the Sheep Pen Schoolhouse. Then they built a building in the ‘40s, and the building we worship in now was built in the 1970s. Daddy also helped start the Church of Christ in Blue Ridge in the ‘60s and he was a leader there, too. We moved to Boardtown in 1968, and he’d been going to the Boardtown church since then,” she said.
“He loved being an elder and working with the church. There’s also no telling how many people he taught to lead singing in church. He was an excellent bass singer. His voice got so low it would vibrate the bench,” Cantrell added. “The biggest thing he taught me, really, was that we have the hope of heaven and we’ll go be with Jesus when we’re finished here.”
Perhaps Chancey was proudest of his big family, which includes 11 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
“He got to baptize some of his grandchildren and was very proud of that, too,” Cantrell said.