Fiddle player J. R. Chatwell was born in Weatherford, Texas, on May 27, 1915. He was the son of Edward Isaac and Sudie C. (Hudson) Chatwell. J. R. was part of a large farming family that encouraged and appreciated music. Although all members of the family played piano, none showed the affinity for the fiddle that he possessed. When he started playing violin at age eight, Chatwell became his father's "fiddlin' boy" and soon was the pride of the family.
Chatwell always played by ear, and at age fifteen or sixteen, after the Chatwells moved to Sudan, Texas, he was sneaking out the back window of the family's home to play local dances. During one of his late-night forays he met and heard Cliff Bruner, the lead fiddler for the famous western swing group Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies. Brown allowed good local musicians to sit in with his group, and Chatwell was asked to sit in with the Brownies. Bruner was impressed with the youth and helped get him a gig with fiddler Elmer Scarborough, who was putting together a group called the Hi-Flyers and needed a fiddling partner. A month later Bruner persuaded Chatwell to join his own Houston-based group, the Texas Wanderers—not as a fiddler, but as a piano player. Although Chatwell preferred playing fiddle and did not want to play piano, Bruner reminded him of who it was that discovered him. Soon Chatwell joined Bruner to play boogie-woogie, blues, and barrelhouse piano for the group.
His love of fiddling made it difficult to stay long with the group as a piano player, though, and soon Chatwell had picked up and moved on to join the Modern Mountaineers. Although the Mountaineers switched personnel frequently, at the time Chatwell joined they had a sound that perfectly fitted Chatwell's interest in jazz. Chatwell was greatly influenced by the jazz-violin style of Stuff Smith. He picked up on Smith's jazz licks and applied them to country, thus creating a unique sound that influenced swing fiddlers to come, including Johnny Gimble of the Texas Playboys. Chatwell recorded with the Modern Mountaineers in 1937.
Through the years, he played with a variety of popular Texas bands and musicians, including Johnny Thames, Bill Boyd's Country Ramblers, and the Light Crust Doughboys, before signing up for an on-and-off twenty-five-year stint with Adolph Hofner. Between tours with Hofner, Chatwell, who also became known as "Chat the Cat," played with other groups, including the Village Boys from 1945 to 1948 and Smiley Whitley's Texans and Walter Kleypas's Lone Star Boys in the early 1950s. "He played good notes, and good passages, but the way he phrased them—it was like a good comedian—there's pauses, you know, like Jack Benny's routine,"said Johnny Gimble of Chatwell's playing. "It's hard to explain—you have to feel it."
Chatwell married Jewell Grace Locke in 1937. They had two children, Joyce Ann Chatwell (born in 1938) and James Robert Chatwell (born in 1945). Although Chatwell recorded in California, he never moved to the West Coast as did so many other Texas musicians at the time, preferring to raise his family in Texas even if doing so meant he would never make it big. "I've been quoted as saying that I didn't think J. R. was in the music for the money," said Gimble of Chatwell's relative obscurity. "He'd go play where the rhythm was good. If you're playing swing or improvising, you just get on top of that wave and ride."
A stroke in 1968 ended Chatwell's fiddling career, although he still managed to play piano with his right hand and sing. He found a new generation of musicians that appreciated his western swing style, including Asleep at the Wheel, Willie Nelson, and Doug Sahm. Sahm's parents took him to the Chatwell house when Doug was a child, and Sahm virtually grew up with Chatwell as his musical mentor. Sahm later had the elderly musician play piano at several of his own gigs.
Chatwell continued to play and cross the line between jazz, blues, and country music on Yusef Lateef's album Part of the Search (1971), on several Johnny Gimble albums, and finally on his own album, Jamming with J. R. and Friends (1982). Jamming featured appearances by Sahm, Nelson, Augie Meyers, and Ernie Durawa, as Chatwell played his romping one-handed barrelhouse blues. Chatwell died on June 18, 1983, in San Antonio and is buried in Sunset Memorial Park in that city. He was survived by his wife, Jewell, who moved after his death to Devine, Texas.