Jim Mills passes

Jim Mills, one of the most celebrated banjo players of his generation, and a noted vintage instrument trader, has died of a heart attack at his home in Durham, NC on May 3. He was 57 years of age.

Though most bluegrass lovers remember Jim for his 14 years with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, he also played a five year stint with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. Prior to those national touring gigs, Mills served as a member of Summer Wages and The Bass Mountain Boys. Throughout his entire professional career, spanning roughly 30 years, he was known for a powerful banjo style drawing heavily on the music of Earl Scruggs and J.D. Crowe.

So impressed was he with Scruggs, Jim enjoyed telling everyone, that as a youngster, on top of practicing Earl’s licks all day, he would also insert a toothpick between his two front teeth, hoping to give himself that same gap in his smile that Scruggs always had.

Though both his father and grandfather were banjo players, it has hearing the original cut of Foggy Mountain Breakdown on a record his brother brought home that sealed his fate. From that day forward it was banjo, banjo, banjo for Jim Mills.

On top of nine albums with Skaggs, and four with Doyle, Jim had three solo projects of his own, Bound To Ride (1998), My Dixie Home (2002), and Hide Head Blues (2005). All were extremely influential among banjo players, and received both critical and commercial success. He was also featured on Dolly Parton’s My Grass Is Blue (1999) and My Little Sparrow (2001), Carry Me Across The Mountain from Dan Tyminksi (2000), Alan Bibey’s In The Blue Room (2000), and the two Huber Banjos records, Team Flathead (2004) and Cuppa ‘Jo (2006).

During the early 2000s, Mills was everywhere you looked: on the road with Skaggs, appearing on any number of albums as a studio player, and put forward by Huber Banjos with a Jim Mills signature model banjo, a replica of the notorious Mack Crow RB-75 Gibson Masterone made in the late 1930s. When Vince Gill decided to do a bluegrass tour in 2012, he called on Jim to fill the banjo spot.

His banjo style didn’t diverge tremendously from Scruggs and Crowe, yet he played with a power and immediacy that set him apart. Not a large man, his right hand hit those strings with an authority and intensity that belied his size. And those rakes!

Between 1999 and 2006, he won the IBMA Banjo Player of the Year award each year but two, with those going to Tom Adams and J.D. Crowe. It was his time.

A native North Carolinian at heart, Jim resisted moving to Nashville while working with Kentucky Thunder. He maintained a small apartment and a vehicle in Nashville but always returned to his home near Raleigh after each road trip with Skaggs.

In 2009, his meticulously-researched book on the history of Gibson banjos was released, Gibson Mastertone: Flathead 5-String Banjos of the 1930s and 1940s, complete with an array of wonderful photos of classic examples.

In 2010, Jim left Ricky Skaggs to focus on his growing business, buying and selling vintage Gibson banjos. He built a showroom in the basement level of his home with as many as a dozen or more prewar Mastertones on display, along with a remarkable collection of Flatt & Scruggs memorabilia. Browsers and serious buyers were welcomed into his home and treated like royalty, as Jim was quite proud of his banjos – both items for sale, and those “keepers” he had found, like the Snuffy Jenkins RB-4 – not to mention his hard won archive of early bluegrass mementoes. Every picture, every knick knack, and every instrument had a story, and he relished the telling as much as he did showing off his wares.

As a collector, Mills was a keen competitor and kept close tabs on vintage banjos all over the US, staying in touch with the owners in case they should ever decide to sell. In more recent years, he had expanded the business to include vintage Les Paul Gibson guitars.

Jim leaves behind many friends. He was a warm and generous man, with perhaps the biggest smile in the bluegrass world. He loved the banjo deeply, and the bluegrass music he played so well. There won’t be another like him.

No funeral service is planned, though a Celebration of Life will be scheduled at some point in the near future.

R.I.P., Jim Mills.

Share this:

About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.