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 But from asking every night, I was fortunate to obtain a lot of unpublished photos and other things.”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 full-time 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…