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Remembering Kentucky Thunder Banjo Player Jim Mills

photo: David Toccafondi

Many have played the banjo in the annals of country, folk, and bluegrass music. Jim Mills lived the banjo.

He was most recognizable as the banjo player in Kentucky Thunder behind Ricky Skaggs for 14 years, starting in the late ’90s up until 2010. Mills also played on 11 Ricky Skaggs albums over that period. Prior to that, Mills spent five years playing in Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. He also did a stint in the bluegrass band Summer Wages at the start of his career, as well as the Bass Mountain Boys between Doyle Lawson and Ricky Skaggs.

Jim Mills would also play banjo for Dolly Parton on her albums Grass Is Blue (1999) and Little Sparrow (2001), along with various other artists and projects throughout the era. Through this time, Jim Mills was considered by most as the premier banjo player of the era, and won the prestigious IBMA Banjo Player of the Year award a record-setting six times (1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006).

Mills’ debut solo album Born To Ride (1998) also won the IBMA Instrumental Album of the Year. He also released My Dixie Home (2002) and High Head Blues (2005) as solo projects. Through Kentucky Thunder and other projects, Jim Mills also accrued six Grammy Awards in his career as well.

When Jim Mills retired from the road in 2010, it wasn’t to hang the banjo up, but to study the instrument even deeper as a historian, archivist, and dealer of vintage banjos.

James Robert “Jim” Mills was born in Raleigh, North Carolina on December 18th, 1966. Both his father and grandfather were banjo players as well, but according to Mills, it was hearing the first recording of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” that had Jim hooked on the instrument, and he decided to take it up as a lifelong pursuit. Jim started teaching himself the banjo at the age of 12, and began pursuing it full-time after high school. To many he became known as “Smilin’ Jim” for the wide grin he’d sport on stage.

Earl Scruggs was Jim’s primary influence. Along with emulating the Scruggs style, it’s said that as a youngster, Mills kept a toothpick between his front two teeth, trying to make a gap just like the one Scruggs had. Jim Mills also looked up to J.D. Crowe. The Mills banjo of choice was an RB-75 Gibson Mastertone produced in the 1930s. Jim became so synonymous with the instrument, Huber Banjos made a Jim Mills signature banjo model based around it.

In 2009 while still playing with Kentucky Thunder, Jim Mills published the book Gibson Mastertone: Flathead 5-String Banjos of the 1930s and 1940s, which went deep into the history of the instruments. Perhaps it was during this endeavor that Mills discovered his passion for the banjo went well beyond playing to preservation, trading, and teaching about the instrument.

The lower basement of the Jim Mills house became a museum of vintage Gibson banjos, and he would speak at seminars and trade shows about the instrument. Mills also kept other pieces of bluegrass memorabilia, especially pertaining to Flatt & Scruggs. Mills turned his passion for the instrument itself into his full-time occupation after retiring from the road at a relatively young age. He also specialized in vintage Gibson Les Paul guitars.

Jim Mills always kept his home in North Carolina. Even when touring with Ricky Skaggs full-time, he had a small apartment in Nashville, but spent as much time as he could back home in Durham. His death on May 3rd was completely unexpected. He passed away due to a heart attack at the age of 57.

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