Saturday, February 25, 2012

Picked Bits of History in Durham, NC

When Steve Martin (yes, the arrow-through-the-head, “wild and crazy guy” former SNL star, internationally-known comedian, actor and author) takes the stage at DPAC – Durham Performing Arts Center on June 3 with the Steep Canyon Rangers, he will play the banjo; it is an instrument he has mastered over decades of practice and play. 
But whatever does this have to do with history, you ask? A lot – sit tight.

Durham is home to many interesting collections.  There are deep and rich archives in the two university libraries here at Duke and NCCU, an amazing collection of early Americana at the Patterson’s Mill Country Store, the world’s largest collections of low brass instruments.

And banjos. 

Not just any banjos, either. Durham is home to the world’s largest privately held collection of Gibson flathead five-string Mastertone banjos made between 1930 and 1942. Seven of the approximately 140 known to exist in the world are here.  

Esoteric? Perhaps – but as the forbearer to which most current banjos owe their design, the collection is important.  In fact, owner Jim Mills considers himself a guardian of these instruments.  

As a professional musician, six time Grammy winner and six consecutive year recipient of the International Bluegrass Music Association Banjo Player of the year (the most ever), Mills is, very quietly, and international star in his own right who knows his stuff about banjos.  To the frustrated musicians reading this: he taught himself to play and for the 14 years he played with Ricky Skaggs many considered him one of the best in the world. His collection of awards certainly lends credit to that opinion. 

Mills operates a store and showroom here – almost a museum with its memorabilia and products for the serious banjo player.  Open by appointment only, aficionados will find parts, music, whole instruments, and lots of history…even an image of the aforementioned Mr. Martin who purchased one of his banjos from Mills.

Mills is, if nothing else, humble.  His business, career and collection of instruments are the result of continued hard work.  Only about 200 of the Gibson Mastertone banjos that Mills collects were ever made, and the collection is quite valuable.  According to Mills, “These are considered the Stradivari of banjos” as he referenced the most valuable and respected violins ever made.  He’d never admit it, but Mills and his banjo collection are a treasure equally valued here in Durham, where great things happen.

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