Pickin' His Way Through History

Hide Head Blues (Sugar Hill)

Jim Mills

By Bob Mitchell

There are many celebrated banjo players today and anyone in the know will tell you Mills, 2005 IBMA banjo player of the year, is one of the best. A single listen to "Hide Head Blues" makes it easy to understand why he is consistently recognized as one of the most respected musicians in the business.

Before the CD is opened the quality of the recording is apparent in the cover art. A happy photograph of Mills looking like Earl Scruggs in a black suit with a red string tie as he proudly holds a legendary 1940 Mack Crow Gold RB-75 Gibson banjo. Once the CD is opened and played, however, one problem quickly becomes apparent: You cannot listen to any single track without experiencing an irresistible urge to hit the repeat button.

In addition to the Mack Crow, Mills also uses a 1937 Bill Worrell RB-75 Gibson, a 1940 Posie Roach RB-75 Gibson and one of the most well known, documented and photographed original flathead five sting Mastertone Gibsons, the 1935 Snuffy Jenkins RB-4. Normally, a review would not usually mention specific instruments but these historic banjos in the hands of a master preserve some very special and inspiring sounds.

And not only does Mills surround himself with extraordinary instruments but also with exceptional musicians. The solid bass of Barry Bales provides a pleasantly powerful underpinning for each track. Adam Steffy's mandolin also graces each cut with incredibly tasteful fills. Dan Tyminski contributes his authoritative guitar to 10 tracks and a lead vocal to two songs. The bow work of Stuart Duncan is a consistent driving force on 11 tracks. Simply put, his fiddle playing is phenomenal. Don Rigsby, Cody Kilby andy Leftwich and Paul Brewster also guest on this remarkable disc.

Mills, of course, is at center stage and he does not disappoint. His technique and tone are impeccable. His arrangements are always thoughtful. But hold on: Many readers may not know Mills is more than a banjo player. He can play the fire out of a guitar too. (Now and then you hear his work with Ricky Skaggs or the Whites.) On this project he lays down one of the finest thumb-style tunes you'll hear in "Guitar Rag." Always concerned with musical historical accuracy, Mills commissioned a custom made "Super 400" model like the one used by Merle Travis. And make no mistake - Merle would approve of Mills.

Some of my favorite selections are "Temperance Reel," "Cowboys and Indians," "The Old Hen," and "Theme Time."

On a five-point scale of excellence, this classy release rates a five. Learn more at www.sugarhillrecords.com.