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Jim Mills: A Remembrance – By Tim Stafford

May 13, 2024

Jim Mills: A Remembrance – By Tim Stafford

(Editor’s Note: Below, Grammy award and IBMA award winner, guitarist, songwriter, and author Tim Stafford pays tribute to his friend, collaborator, and one-of-a-kind banjo picker and historian, Jim Mills, who passed away at the age of 57 on May 3.)

I started out as a banjo player, but switched to guitar early on; our little group got a better banjo player. But I’ve always loved the banjo, especially pile-driving, inventive players like Earl Scruggs, J.D. Crowe, Paul Silvius, Ron Stewart, Ron Block, Sammy Shelor, Jason Burleson, so many others. I especially like playing rhythm guitar with a great banjo player – it’s like a bluegrass drum track. I’ve not enjoyed that feeling any more than when I got to play with Jim Mills.

Jim was a force of nature on the banjo. He was such a fluid, powerful player and he could be very aggressive on the instrument, which stood in strict opposition to his demeanor – they didn’t call him “Smiling Jimmy Mills” by accident. He played things on record that I had to continually rewind. How did the banjo survive that?

Jim Mills: A Remembrance – By Tim Stafford

(L-R:) Barry Bales, Stuart Duncan, Jim Mills, Adam Steffey, Tim Stafford, and Brent Truitt, Nashville, TN 1998. Photo by Mike Kelly.

Once in the studio, I remember Jim breaking a string on the intro to “Bear Tracks,” a pretty hilarious outtake. It sounded like the world had exploded in the headphones. Jim just said, “What the ?!??!?” and Barry Bales let out a huge laugh – we had never heard anything like it.

It amazed me how eloquently Jim could talk in quiet rapid stretches and at length about everything related to old, Gibson flathead banjos. Like most vintage instrument topics, it’s a field of deep arcana, and the club sometimes seems too exclusive even if you truly love the sound of the things. But Jim never made it seem like anything but pure joy when he spoke, always returning to that million dollar smile. He was sharp, his collection of instruments was unrivaled, and he turned the basement of his house into a showroom.

And boy, did he know Earl Scruggs and his playing – inside out, all his instruments, all the bootleg recordings, even ephemera related to Flatt & Scruggs. He collected it and treasured it all, because it had never really gotten any better than Earl as far as Jim was concerned. The fact that Jim’s “desert island banjo” was Mack Crowe’s 1940 gold-plated RB-75 was validated for him by the fact that Scruggs himself mentioned Crowe as an influence on his playing in his 1968 book Earl Scruggs and the Five-String Banjo. Of course, Jim wrote his own definitive book, Gibson Mastertone: Flathead Five-String Banjos of the 1930s and 1940s.

Extremely intelligent, driven people are usually good at whatever they put their minds to. Tony Rice’s passion was restoring and repairing Bulova Accutron watches, and he was considered an authority in that area of expertise by people who had no idea he even played guitar. Ricky Skaggs told me that Mills was very involved in buying and trading antique shotguns as well as banjos and was just as well known in that arena.

It was all part of one cloth for Jim, though. A third-generation banjoist, a native son of North Carolina – the homeplace of the bluegrass banjo and a place so many great players still call home. When he joined Ricky Skaggs’s Kentucky Thunder, it was on one condition — he was staying in North Carolina.

We first met in the early ’90s when he was playing with Doyle Lawson and I was part of Alison Krauss and Union Station. He, Barry Bales, Adam Steffey, and I jammed for hours one day in Tulsa, Oklahoma as I recall. One of the songs he wanted to do repeatedly was “John Henry Blues.”

A few years later, the three of us played on Jim’s first solo record, Bound to Ride, for Barry Poss and Sugar Hill records. We tracked it at Brent Truitt’s Le Garage studio along with Stuart Duncan. Later Jerry Douglas overdubbed and Ricky Skaggs, Alan O’Bryant and Don Rigsby came in for guest vocals. And I sang “John Henry Blues.” It was such an honor to be on this record. Later on he did an instructional DVD for John Lawless and Acutab and I ended up backing him up on some tunes there.

I also played on a few records with Jim during this time, including Alan Bibey’s In the Blue Room. Near the end of a Patrick McDougal song called “County Fool,” after the last chorus, I knew Jim was going to come roaring in, taking us out to the end of the song. In anticipation, I hit a G-run that ended on the downbeat, on the bottom root note, a very unusual place for a G-run. I was sure engineer Tim Austin and producer Ronnie Bowman would want me to do it over, but they liked it so it stayed. Today I listen to that track and I’m the one who’s smiling – Jim could make you do things like that.

Jim wasn’t just a banjo player – he was a fine all-around musician and singer. His lead, fingerpicked guitar playing was superb and he was a fine songwriter. One year he came up to me at IBMA and said he had a demo of a song he’d written that he was sure Blue Highway could do. The demo was just him playing all the instruments and singing and it knocked my socks off. He had pitched it to Skaggs, but the boss man passed. The tune was based on a documentary Jim had seen and was called “Pikeville Flood.” We cut it on the Midnight Storm record and it remains one of our most popular live songs.

It was always a pleasure to see Jim and just get to hang out with him. Can’t believe I won’t get the chance to do that again. RIP buddy.

Photo Credit: Richie Dotson

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Jim Mills: A Remembrance – By Tim Stafford
Jim Mills: A Remembrance – By Tim Stafford