Story by Graham Hoppe Video by Sandra Davidson Photography by Baxter Miller
Jim Mills fell in love with the banjo when he was seven years old. It all began on an ordinary day when his brother, 10 years his senior, was spinning through his record collection. He played some Creedence and some Fats Domino. Then he put on Earl Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” an instrumental record that featured the banjo. Mills was transfixed. He’d grown up around the instrument—his dad and granddad both played it in the clawhammer style, a method of strumming and plucking popular with old time musicians. “I had heard it the way my Granddad played it, but not this rapid fire machine gun sound.” The Scruggs record was unlike anything he’d ever heard, “I didn’t recognize it as a banjo...but I put my ear on the speaker and said, ‘play it again.’” It was the beginning of a lifelong passion that has defined Mills’ life.
A five-string Gibson banjo made prior to World War II is considered by most everyone to be the finest banjo you can get. The model, a Gibson Mastertone, is a benchmark — almost every banjo made since is modeled after its design. Many compare these banjos to the iconic violins made by Antonio Stradivarius. To find one, the best place to start is probably Jim Mills’ banjo room, a 1,000-square-foot walnut paneled basement filled with one of the largest collections of pre-WWII banjos in the world. Dozens of these banjos rest quietly in the room, surrounded by an impressive assortment of bluegrass memorabilia and artifacts. The walls are tastefully covered in hundreds of framed original photographs and posters. There are many pictures of Mills with folks like Norah Jones, Dolly Parton and Earl Scruggs. Artifacts of the most famous banjo players in bluegrass history lie encased in glass display cabinets. When you step into the banjo room, you step into a different world; a world collectors, professional musicians and music fans from all over travel to see.
Mills, 48, is a respected and trusted authority on the instruments. He can tell you every detail about his banjos down to their tone rings and neck adjustments. He is a, if not the, go-to dealer for players, collectors, and enthusiasts looking for an instrument with a historic pedigree. Well-known players like Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks and Steve Martin have visited Mills to buy their instruments.
Mills, a self-effacing and friendly host, has such captivating enthusiasm for his memorabilia collection and banjos that you almost forget the most amazing detail of all: that he might be the greatest bluegrass banjo player of his generation. He has six Grammy awards, won during his time as the banjo player with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. He has also been awarded Banjo Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) an unprecedented number of six times.
Mills is something of a traditionalist, which is fitting given his love for history; he plays in the classic three-finger technique. It is also fitting given that Mills is a North Carolina native. You might say he plays a North Carolina style banjo.
Born and raised in Raleigh, Mills took up a serious study of the banjo and Earl Scruggs’ technique at the ripe old age of 10. As he neared high school graduation, he was restless and ready to hit the road to play professionally. “I finished high school mostly for my family's sake,” he recalls. As soon as he graduated, he headed out with a band called Summer Wages—named after the Ian Tyson song. Mills recalls that as a teenager he paid his dues with Summer Wages, but the band did pretty well. They landed a deal with Rebel Records, and after a couple albums and a few years of near-constant touring, Mills was asked to join Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Lawson, a Tennessee mandolin player with an aristocratic white beard and a fondness for rhinestones, had put together one of the biggest draws on the bluegrass circuit. In a remarkably short period of time, Mills, then still in his early twenties, found himself at the top of his art form. After five years on the road with Lawson, he moved on to studio work. If someone needed a banjo player Mills was the first call. He played on Dolly Parton’s bluegrass inspired albums, “The Grass is Blue” (1999) and “Little Sparrow” (2001). The albums, recorded for then Durham-based Sugar Hill Records, represented something of a renaissance for Parton. Both earned her well-deserved Grammy awards and garnered universal critical praise.
Mills enjoyed his time with Parton, “She was the sweetest lady, one of those people who is an entertainer on stage, but off stage she flips a switch and is just as normal as can be.”
In the late nineties Ricky Skaggs approached Mills about joining his Nashville-based band, Kentucky Thunder. Having put down roots in Durham, Mills was thrilled by the offer, but didn’t want to relocate. “I said, ‘Ricky I’d love to come work with you—but I don’t care anything about moving to Nashville.’ I’d been there and seen all the people starving who couldn’t afford to get back home.” Mills knew that he needed to stay in North Carolina, “I just didn’t want to go. I have roots here; my wife’s family is here, and we had some land here.”
But Skaggs was determined to make it work. For the next 14 years he paid for Mills to fly back and forth from Durham to Nashville, and wherever else the band was touring. This remarkable arrangement is a testament to Mills’ talent and Skaggs’ belief in his ability. He remains thankful for those opportunities, “It was a big expense I know, but I was grateful for it—I couldn’t have done it any other way.”
Today, the most popular style of banjo is the three-finger bluegrass style popularized and refined by North Carolina native Earl Scruggs. You know the sound: an almost impossible cascade of notes that dance along through the song while still coalescing into a driving melody. Scruggs style, as it has come to be known, revolutionized bluegrass music and revived the banjo’s popularity. In the late forties it became one of the most popular styles of country music and to this day remains the standard style for banjo playing. It is characterized, as the name indicates by the player plucking out a syncopated rhythmic melody using the thumb and first two fingers of their right hand.
When Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s band in 1945, his skill, talent, and artistry were impossible to ignore. The complex instrumentation provided a sea change in the way the instrument was played and viewed, so much so that Scruggs became a near mythic figure. Origin stories cast Scruggs as a kind of savant. One popular tale has a young Scruggs ‘stumbling’ upon the three-finger style as an outlet for his anger after a fight with his brother. These stories, likely intended to enhance the legend, obscure the genius of Scruggs’ playing which was the product of hard work, creativity, and a careful study of the music around him.
At the turn of the century, the banjo had become something of a comedic prop, burdened by uncomfortable associations with blackface minstrelsy and baggy pant comedy. After the decline of minstrelsy, around the 1930s, the banjo’s popularity faded in much of the country, but not in the Piedmont and mountains of North Carolina. People in communities like Cleveland County--where Scruggs grew up--still regarded the banjo as a vital instrument. Its persistence in the region was likely due in part to the success of Charlie Poole, a Rockingham County native, who was a proto-country superstar in the 1920s. Columbia Records sold over 100,000 copies of his song, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” a staggering number considering, at the time, a record that sold 5,000 copies was considered a hit. Poole was also an early endorser of Gibson Mastertone banjos—the same banjos that Jim Mills now sells. His endorsement, success and appearance in the 1929 Gibson catalog contributed to North Carolinian banjo players’ preference for Gibson instruments. Mills figures that the early prominence of North Carolina pioneers is why Gibson banjos, which at the time were made in Kalamazoo, Michigan, became so popular in Carolina. “They wanted to play what their heroes played."
Over the years, Mills’ Durham locale has put him in advantageous proximity to some of these coveted instruments. “There was an old saying, that there’s a banjo picker behind every tree in NC,” he says, “I think that’s why so many of these prewar banjos are still found here. These instruments migrated here.”
But not all of Mills’ finds have been so close to home. Several years ago Mills heard about an intact five-string Mastertone, an exceptionally rare model— only a few hundred were even made. This one was in South Africa. Its owner, a professor, had spent nearly half a century playing this rare banjo with only four strings. “He wasn’t interested in bluegrass,” remembers Mills, “He had never heard of Earl Scruggs.” He contacted Mills about the banjo, but decided against parting with it. Mills told him if he ever changed his mind that he would happily provide a home for the instrument. A year later the professor called back with sad news: he had been stricken with terminal cancer. “It went through me like lightning,” Mills remembers, “He said, ‘Jim I’m ready to sell the banjo. I’m about to expire.”
Mills was in California, on tour with Bruce Hornsby and had a four-day window, “I called my travel agent and said I need a flight to Africa like tomorrow.” Twenty-six hours later Mills was in South Africa where he met the professor and his family. After spending a day with them hearing stories about the banjo and playing music, Mills and the banjo were on a plane back to the US and then back on tour.“ I’m grateful for it. He was such a cool guy, and his family was great.” The professor passed away a few months later, but Mills is still in touch with his family and the banjo has become a centerpiece in his collection.
Mills’ collection began as a byproduct of his own hunt for the perfect banjo. “Players are always looking for the instrument… and I was no different.” Soon though, “It got to be that for every banjo I’d find for myself, there’d be five more that I’d see—and I knew people who would want them.”
In 2010, after touring almost constantly since high school, Mills decided to try his hand at life in his North Carolina, “I got out of Ricky Skaggs’ band... and thought, ‘Do I want to do this forever? Will I be climbing out of buses and sleeping with wheels under my head when I’m 70?’ I decided I wanted spend some more time at home.” Mills thought dealing in his beloved Mastertones might be a way to do just that.
When you hear a banjo being played almost anywhere today, you are hearing the influence of Scruggs, but he wasn’t the first to deploy the three finger style of play. DeWitt “Snuffy” Jenkins, an old-time banjo player and early proponent of the three-finger style from Rutherford County, is; and rightfully so, Jenkins has a profound presence in Mills’ banjo room. Jenkins, who Scruggs cited as an influence, served as a mentor of another star bluegrass performer with North Carolina roots, Don Reno. Jenkins’ depression-era performances look deeply archaic in today’s light; in his heyday he played a baggy pants character of a hillbilly and one of his band mates often performed in blackface. But his banjo playing stands out and sounds like a beacon of modernity coming through early records. Even today, it is fresh and dynamic and sounds remarkably like Scruggs’ style which came years later. The banjo that Jenkins played those licks on, a Gibson with a distinctive black pickguard, now sits in Jim Mills’ banjo room.
Mills says, “The three-finger style was really a regional thing. The rural radio stations here were very small in terms of watts, and some of these artists, like Snuffy Jenkins—he was the first guy to play (that style) on a radio broadcast, as far as we know.” Those small wattage stations, often only heard throughout a county or two, created a community in their part of the country, says Mills, “So he was heard by Ralph Stanley. He was heard by Earl Scruggs. He was heard by Don Reno in their little area...and up a little into Virginia—but that’s as far as it got.”
“Earl took something from his home and perfected it.” Mills says, “ We were sitting in his living room and he told me, ‘I grew up around this style’ so what he really did was perfect and popularized it.”
When Mills plays the banjo he smiles. There aren’t any of the pained expressions and histrionics that so often accompany today’s popular musical performances. You can tell by watching that he likes the music he plays. He enjoys the sounds he can draw out of a banjo. While his focus has become his life at home and dealing instruments, he hasn’t given up performing entirely. He joined Vince Gill for a tour this summer. But, Mills still likes returning to Durham. He’s proud of the home he’s built and of the room that displays the remarkable story of bluegrass, a story he’s helped define. Keenly aware of what it means to settle in his home state, Mills says, “I’m real proud of it. It means something to be from North Carolina and to be a three finger style banjo player.”
Mills is part of a long line of Carolina pickers that extends back to the foundations of American music. “By the time that Earl Scruggs got to Nashville to audition for Bill Monroe backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, none of those cats had ever heard anything like this. It was like something from outer space,” says Mills. When Scruggs began playing his banjo backstage of the Ryman that first time, the musicians around him were so drawn to the sound that a crowd of country music’s elite performers gathered around him. Years later, Scruggs would tell Mills that the attention surprised and embarrassed him, “He told me that he felt like an animal in a cage,” Mills recalls. Scruggs was used to playing for people who had grown up with his style. He wasn’t a curiosity at home. In his home community was a great player, a craftsman, an artist.
Jim Mills still feels that community, “Some of the best players I’ve ever heard are from here, some of my favorite players—and I’m not just saying that because I’m from here.” He has also become the center of North Carolina’s banjo community. Every year during the IBMA festival in Raleigh he and his wife open their home for players, collectors, and fans. Banjo seminars he hosts for those who’d like to learn more about the history and significance of the instrument have been extremely successful. October’s seminar has sold out. Mills hopes to share a piece of the banjo with others who are as enraptured as he was the first time he heard “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” The banjo has shaped his life and allowed him to pursue his dreams and become a peer to his idols, “I was very fortunate to be able to make a living doing this—there are a lot of great bluegrass musicians that haven’t, so I’m thankful.”
For more information on Jim Mills’ Banjo Room, his seminars and his open house, go to: www.prewargibsonbanjos.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.