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Aspen’s new guitar shop has new manager

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesDan Mills recently brought his 30-plus years of experience with vintage music instruments to Aspen's new Two Old Hippies shop.
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ASPEN – For good reason, Dan Mills remembers precisely the day he moved from northern Illinois to Tennessee.”March 15, 1978. I moved from a harsh winter to a beautiful place. I crossed over the Mason-Dixon Line and that second it turned beautiful. A beautiful blue sky. It was a great day. I was on cloud nine.”Yes, Dan, but enough about the weather. Tell us about the guitars. The rows and rows of vintage guitars – old Martins and Gibsons, and not just guitars but mandolins and banjos – lined up in Nashville’s Gruhn Guitars, where you, as a 23-year-old, were hired as a bottom-of-the-ladder salesman.”I have a loss for words,” says Mills. “It was like my life’s ambition at that point to be George Gruhn’s right-hand man.”The dream actually began to come true a few weeks prior to the southbound journey. Mills, who had been a customer at Gruhn, trading and selling a few instruments, had composed a letter to George Gruhn, the entrepreneur who founded the store in downtown Nashville in 1970, seeking employment. In late February of 1978, Mills got a return phone call from Gruhn. Despite a minor dust-up in the interim – Mills was unhappy with a repair job Gruhn Guitars had done on a mandolin, though Gruhn eventually came to agree that the work had been subpar – a job offer was made.”I was watching ‘Star Trek’ when he called,” said Mills. “It’s one of those things in life you remember real vividly.”Mills’ most recent experience with crystal-clear moments from his professional life happened not nearly so long ago. But it seems like one that he will store away with all its details. In late January of this year, he came across a tiny advertisement in the Nashville Tennessean. The ad was seeking someone with managerial experience in the vintage instrument field to run a new shop in Aspen. On Feb. 3, Tom Bedell – a Basalt-based businessman and former musician who was working on opening a new store to replace Aspen’s Great Divide Music – brought Mills to Colorado. On Feb. 6, Mills was hired to run the guitar portion of the business, and to help Bedell launch his new line of guitars. On Feb. 16, Mills moved to the Roaring Fork Valley.”It might as well have had my name in it,” the 54-year-old Mills said about the want ad that started this latest phase of his life. “A strange ad – I’ve never seen such an ad. Experienced vintage guitar store manager? That’s a pretty unique experience. Almost all those people are entrepreneurs, in business for themselves. I’m one of the few people who ran a business for an owner. I sent in my rsum immediately.”Two Old Hippies opened two weeks ago. The store sells a variety of goods: fancy blue jeans; crafts and textiles that Tom Bedell and his wife, Molly, discover in their international travels; jewelry. But it is the music side of the store that seems to be generating the majority of the interest. And, on a Monday morning, a considerable amount of foot traffic, with pickers stepping carefully toward the walls of acoustic instruments and the few electric guitars.And the music side of the store is the part that contains the biggest dreams. Two Old Hippies is where Tom Bedell is launching his Bedell Guitars. In his youth, Bedell had a business that imported guitars; now he is getting back into the arena in a bigger way. Two Old Hippies is stocked with approximately 16 Bedell Guitars, the first-generation instruments in the line. The guitars, designed by Bedell and built in China, should eventually fill the space in Aspen, and beyond. Bedell – and Mills, who goes to Guangzhou City next month to critique the luthier operation – have big plans for the brand.”We want to improve the normal procedure of a Chinese workshop,” said Mills, “and handcraft instruments that will compare with the best in the world.”••••Mills caught the musical bug as a fifth-grader in Mayfield, Ky. – playing trumpet in the school band. As a 14-year-old he got his first guitar, and he showed a definite knack for the instrument; by the following year, he was giving lessons to beginners. Right out of high school he began playing in acoustic bands that mixed folk, old-time string music and bluegrass. “Everything from Flatt & Scruggs to John Prine. A lot of John Prine covers,” he said.Soon after, Mills developed his passion not just for playing, but for the instruments he played. He bought a banjo (Gibson Mastertone tenor) for $300. He brought it to Gruhn Guitars, and was given a $600 credit toward the his first vintage instrument (1954 Martin D-28 guitar). “I knew it was something valuable,” he said of his instruments, and of instruments generally.Apart from the price tags attached to them – which have gone skyward over the last 30 years, changing the business enormously since the time Mills entered it – vintage instruments have left an emotional and sensuous impact.”I almost compare it to books,” said Mills, who has the impeccable, endearing politeness of a Southerner. (His favorite celebrity moment was dinner at Lyle Lovett’s house, with Lovett’s parents in attendance, and it’s easy to see why: “It was a very hospitable, Southern thing to experience. Lyle’s one of the sweetest people there is, and he got it from his parents.) If you’ve ever had an early edition – the smell, the feel, the pages are uneven. There’s a certain joy you get that you don’t get from a paperback. The information’s the same, but there’s something tactile. You can play ‘House of the Rising Sun’ on a Telecaster, a steel-string, a Martin, and it’s the same song. But there’s different textures. There’s fun in that.”There was also plenty of fun in being at what might be the very center of the vintage instrument universe. Since 1995, Gruhn has occupied a four-story building across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium, one-time home to the Grand Ole Opry. Mills, who became sales manager of Gruhn in 1986 and general manager in 1992, oversaw 13,000 square feet stuffed with a thousand instruments in the heart of the town known as Music City, U.S.A. In the early ’80s – a time he thinks of as a golden age at Gruhn – the repair shop employees included Kim Walker and Steve Gilchrist, both of whom are now top luthiers, with long waiting lists for their limited output.Though Mills was part of the sales department, he spent most of his working hours buying instruments, or looking for instruments. “I used to be an instrument hunter. If you don’t have them, you can’t sell them,” said Mills, who recently bought the first two vintage acoustic guitars (1952 Gibson Super 400C, an acoustic jazz guitar; a 1963 Fender Jaguar) for Two Old Hippies. “Anyone can pick up the phone and buy a new instrument. Vintage instruments, you have to put the time in and know what you’re buying.”The enjoyment of the job went downhill several years ago, as Mills’ relationship with his boss soured. He took a job with the Nashville-based Gibson, working in quality control and sales support. But he didn’t love the company, or the way he fit in there.”I didn’t flourish,” said Mills, who lives in Glenwood Springs. “It was a very slow progression and a very tense company.”The instruments themselves, however, still hold their magic. Mills doesn’t play much classical guitar, or flamenco guitar. Or violin, or any of the bowed instruments. But he loves to be around them, and deal with the people who make them, and learn about them and talk about them. Over the years, he has owned instruments he can hardly play, and he manages to get something valuable out of them.”Classical guitars fascinate me. I appreciate their nuance,” he said. “One thing about ownership is, you live with them. They’re home with you at night and you become familiar with them. I kept them for months and months, and that allowed me to learn about them. Not just to play them, but the construction technique, the historical information.”stewart@aspentimes.com


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