Jim Mills spent decades of his adult life on the road playing banjo with Doyle Lawson, Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton and other revered bluegrass acts. But the 50-year-old Mills has been a collector for even longer than that – his whole life going back to childhood, amassing everything from pocket knives to musical artifacts.
“After the gig, while everybody else would be partying, I’d be trying to find a poster or flyer or some old picture from the promoter,” he said. “And sitting at the merch table afterward, I’d be the guy asking old-timers, ‘Did you ever see Flatt & Scruggs? Or Bill Monroe with Flatt & Scruggs?’ Not many had, and even fewer took pictures, because cameras were rare back then. But from asking every night, I was fortunate to obtain a lot of unpublished photos and other things.”
What started out as a sideline project eventually turned into a fulltime career. Mills is retired from the road nowadays, after a run in which he earned Banjo Player of the Year from the International Bluegrass Music Association six times between 1999 and 2006. But he keeps busy these days tending to an incredible collection of artifacts, especially the banjos he buys, sells and trades. Mills has a museum-quality archive of Earl Scruggs-related memorabilia, which he keeps on display in a downstairs showroom in his home in Durham.
While Mills’ banjo showroom is not officially part of the IBMA convention or the accompanying World of Bluegrass music festival that begins Sept. 26 in downtown Raleigh, it’s a top off-the-grid attraction that festival attendees make a point of visiting. With close to 100 people coming through the showroom during the bluegrass festival last year, Mills did brisk business and expects to do so again this year.
People come because Mills has a remarkable assemblage of significant items – most notably historically important instruments of great price that were played, heard and owned by some of the key figures in bluegrass – and he can quote you chapter and verse about all of it.
“It’s not just somebody’s collection,” said Barry Poss, founder of Sugar Hill Records, the formerly Durham-based bluegrass label. “What he has on display is a man’s lifetime passion. His showroom is the Louvre of traditional bluegrass, and as docent, he lives and breathes everything in there. It’s spectacular.”
It’s also one-of-a-kind enough to make Emily Epley jealous. She’s the executive director of the Earl Scruggs Center, the museum in Shelby devoted to the career of the late bluegrass legend and banjo innovator – the man who took bluegrass to the masses in the middle decades of the 20th century. The Scruggs Center gives a fine overview of the banjo player behind everything from “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and the theme song to “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
But for hardcore fans, Mills’ showroom fills in a lot of the details.
“The first time I went through Jim’s space, seeing all the wonderful treasures he had, gave me serious Earl Scruggs object envy,” Epley said with a laugh. “I don’t know anybody else who has anything like it, both the quality of what he has and the stories behind it all.”
It’s not just somebody’s collection. What he has on display is a man’s lifetime passion.
Barry Poss, founder of Sugar Hill Records
Picking and choosing
Mills, soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, nevertheless gets excited when talking about his passion for banjo, which he took up after idolizing Scruggs. He became a fan of Scruggs’ instrument, too, the pre-war Gibson Mastertone banjo. Only a few hundred were made before World War II, and they can go for prices well into six figures.
“Pre-war Gibson is what Earl Scruggs played, Don Reno, J.D. Crowe, Sonny Osborne – all the revered luminaries,” said Mills. “They’re the gold standard, like Stradivarius violins, and they’ve been copied a lot but never bettered.
“That banjo right there will be 100 years old in about 10 years, and it still sounds great,” Mills continued, pointing to a banjo on display in his showroom. “What else can you think of that’s made in America and is still viable after 100 years? A 1925 Ford is cool to collect and drive in a parade, but you wouldn’t want to drive one to California. But you can still play that banjo, and it’s better than ever.”
One of Mills’ banjos used to belong to Snuffy Jenkins, an early pioneer of the three-finger style of banjo-picking that Earl Scruggs later turned into “Scruggs style.” Jenkins used to play this banjo on Charlotte radio station WBT while Scruggs was growing up – meaning that it’s an instrument that Scruggs heard over the airwaves while he was growing up around Flint Hill, N.C.
Mills is just as discriminating about visual artifacts, too. He has a number of the songbooks Flatt & Scruggs published starting in 1948, along with incredibly rare vintage posters.
“There are collectors, and then there are those with conglomerations,” Mills said. “My focus is early Flatt & Scruggs, and I’ve got some of their earliest known artifacts.”
He nodded toward a well-preserved concert poster hanging on a wall across the room, promoting a Flatt & Scruggs show that happened 60-odd years ago in “a little one-stoplight town” called Hillsville, Va.
“They probably made five or six of those posters, and most of them went into a fire barrel,” Mills continued. “But I bought that poster from a gentleman who was at the show and pulled it off a pole. Took me 20 years to convince him.”
Between the time Mills left Lawson’s band and went to work for Skaggs, he worked for Poss’ Sugar Hill Records in the early 1990s. Ostensibly he was the shipping manager. But he also sorted through the boxes and boxes of cassette tapes that aspiring musicians sent in.
One day, Mills went back to Poss’ office with a tape that he said needed to be heard right away, declaring that “this kid was the next Mark O’Connor,” the much-heralded country-jazz fiddler. After seeing the accompanying picture of a cherubic little boy, Poss tried to brush him off. But Mills was insistent – and also right, as it turned out.
“We sat in the office, transfixed,” Poss said. “This was no kid, he was already a fully formed musician. It was Chris Thile.”
And that’s how Thile wound up signing with Sugar Hill at age 12. He later went on to lead Nickel Creek, the Grammy-winning and million-selling bluegrass band, before earning a MacArthur Genius Grant and taking over “Prairie Home Companion.”
Mills being Mills, he declines to take much credit.
“He was too good not to make it anywhere he went,” Mills said.
Eventually Mills got back on the road himself, logging 14 years with Skaggs (a decade of them alongside incoming IBMA Hall of Fame fiddler Bobby Hicks) and also appearing on Dolly Parton’s Grammy-winning bluegrass albums for Sugar Hill. He finally quit the road for good in 2010 and moved back home to Durham, where he grew up.
As he points out, being available is a big part of being an instrument dealer. Sleeping in his own bed every night is also a lot more appealing than living on a touring bus.
Besides, there are so many things to collect, and not just banjos. Mills also has a small arsenal of shotguns, and he recently branched into electric guitars by acquiring a Gibson Les Paul, Fender Stratocaster and Fender Telecaster.
“Yeah, it’s my midlife crisis,” he said with a laugh. “Not beach houses or boats, but expensive electric guitars. They’re good ones, too. If I’m gonna do this, hey, I don’t want the instrument to be what gets in the way.”
Want to go?
For details on scheduling an appointment at Jim Mills’ banjo showroom in Durham, go to prewargibsonbanjos.com.