September 22, 2008
Jim Mills Disappears in African Jungle Hunting Legendary Prewar Banjo
AFRICA — Jimmy Mills, renowned prewar instrument expert and banjo star of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, has lost all contact with the outside world and vanished somewhere deep in the former Belgian Congo.
Through a years-long program of aggressive pursuit and acquisition, Mills accrued the most impressive collection of vintage Gibson Mastertone banjos ever assembled and earned a reputation as the world’s dominant banjo headhunter.
From 1930-1942, Gibson Musical Instruments of Kalamazoo, MI, manufactured its Mastertone line of banjos, the most noble and glorious instruments ever made. But all production ceased with the onset of World War II, and populations of wild prewar Mastertones have dwindled steadily as collectors such as Mills have sought to possess as many as possible.
“If you were ever even barely thinking about the remote possibility of buying or selling a prewar banjo, Jim Mills would somehow find you,” said one Nashville banjoist.
As Gibson’s coveted vintage species became increasingly over-hunted and rare, Mills’s exploits took him further and further from his North Carolina home. His last successful banjo hunting safari took place over 8000 miles from Appalachia in South Africa and yielded two prized 1930’s flatheads, the most rare and coveted of all Mastertones.
But according to sources close to Mills, his prewar banjo obsession had become increasingly dark and monomaniacal in recent years, with the hunter fixating on Africa as the last untapped refuge for prewar instruments.
“When he came back from Africa that first time he was changed. It’s like there was this weird darkness taking over his heart,” said a source close to Mills.
Following the total plunder of all South African flatheads in 2007, Mills received word of a legendary 1937 five-string Mastertone Granada possessed by a small aboriginal tribe deep within the Congolese jungle. Concerned friends and family repeatedly warned Mills against returning to the Dark Continent, but he could neither be stopped nor reasoned with.
In a brief email sent from Mills upon his arrival in Africa, he described the scene in the Brazzaville airport:
“The word ‘banjo’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse.”
That email communication would be his last.