Photographs by Jim Graham
Like many others, Jim Sinclair worked his way through Ken Burns’ acclaimed eight-part Country Music documentary series this past fall on PBS, though his interest was perhaps a bit more focused than your average music fan. “There were literally dozens of musicians in the documentary I knew and worked with,” he says. “It was bittersweet in many respects.”
Sinclair was transported back to his early 20s—“a journey of several decades, playing country music with great musicians I had the privilege of working with and spending time with,” he says.
The series featured “I’ve Been Everywhere, Man,” a song made famous by Johnny Cash. Sinclair once made a movie with Cash, and the tune neatly encapsulates the seasoned guitarist’s journey to date. “You can do more than just one thing in your life,” says Sinclair. “It’s like a bee going from flower to flower.”
Like most people who travel and have varied interests, Sinclair has made it a habit of returning to his southern Chester County home with souvenirs. In many cases, what began as a handful of stuff blossomed into bona fide collections Sinclair now curates on his own. His passion for collecting was sparked by a youthful fascination with military decorations on the service uniforms of relatives who’d returned home after World War II. He still has them today, along with dozens of other patches he acquired later. He also collects Delaware spoons and porcelain, toy cannons, classic cigar bands, family mementos, signed celebrity photos, and more.
The eighth-generation Chester County resident has woven most of these collections into the decorative fabric of his family’s warm and spacious farmhouse located just east of the crossroads town of Willowdale. Parts of the home date back to the early 1700s, and when he walks from room to room, Sinclair is very much the knowledgeable tour guide.
Most impressive is his collection of uniforms once worn by the highest-ranking military heroes of the Soviet Union, including Stalin. “It’s the most complete collection outside of Russia,” he says.
Now 68, James C. McComb Sinclair II comes from a prominent family with local roots dating back to the Revolution, including genealogical branches that spread into the South and Midwest and include a 19th-century railroad baron. Originally from Scotland, the Sinclair family settled on a 300-acre farm south of Kennett Square, Pa., the 1700s. They’ve been a part of Chester County life ever since. Although not Catholic himself, a distant relative donated land to Irish-American settlers to build a Catholic church. “When the church opened on Dec. 25, 1869, he sat on a chair outside to greet the first congregation,” says Sinclair. The church congregation, St. Patrick Church, has since moved to Cypress and Meredith streets in Kennett Square and celebrated its 150th anniversary last year.
Though Frederick Klair Sinclair was in the construction business, his son started work fresh out of West Chester University as a foreman at the National Vulcanized Fiber manufacturing facility in Newark, Del. Evenings and weekends, he played pedal-steel guitar for local Kennett Square bands, picking up the stage name James “Sparks” Sinclair.
In 1977, the late Howie Wyeth, Bob Dylan’s drummer and pianist on his Rolling Thunder Review tour, asked Sinclair to join him in New York. He got a room at the Chelsea Hotel, an iconic lodging spot for various famous rockers. “Later, I was a house player at the Lone Star Cafe and got to work with people like Dr. John and Carl Perkins,” says Sinclair.
With great pedal-steel players in short supply, Sinclair landed work as a studio musician and toured with Gordon Lightfoot and other big names. “I was once told to meet the band at Lincoln Center, and I asked the cab driver if he knew where it was,” Sinclair recalls. “He couldn’t believe I’d never heard of it—the same thing with the Kennedy Center. I was just a 27-year-old kid. It was all like magic to me.”
Sinclair moved to Los Angeles in 1980. “While I was driving out to L.A., I stopped somewhere in the Southwest and bought three or four pre-Columbian Native American artifacts. That’s how that collection got started.” Five years later, Sinclair had relocated to
Nashville, where he continued to find work as a musician. He also had a part in The Last Days of Frank & Jesse James, the 1986 TV movie starring Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. That same year, he also played Caesar Rodney in George Washington II: The Forging of a Nation, a small-screen film with Barry Bostwick. “I think they were just looking for someone who knew how to ride,” Sinclair says.
It was his father’s death that drew Sinclair back home. By 1993, though, he was working in Europe, prompted by a call from a friend, Marcella Detroit, who was making an album in London with Elton John and a few studio heavyweights. One half of the popular late-’80s duo Shakespear’s Sister, Detroit also worked with Eric Clapton, co-writing and singing on his 1977 hit, “Lay Down Sally.”
Sinclair ended up playing pedal steel on Detroit’s 1994 album, Jewel. During his stay in England, he also traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, to visit the 15th-century Rosslyn Chapel a few miles south of the city. “Rosslyn is historically the Sinclair family chapel, so I took some time to explore it,” he says. “It wasn’t very well known then, but it became famous for its scenes in the Tom Hanks movie, The Da Vinci Code.”
Sinclair and his wife were married at Rosslyn Chapel in 1999. He’d met Ann Givens, an accomplished horsewoman and banking exec, a few years earlier at the Willowdale Steeplechase. Not long after their marriage, she asked him about a move to Amsterdam. At the time, she was working with Deutsche Bank, and the company had offered her a transfer. While there, they did some collecting—especially hand-painted blue-and-white Delftware—and James played guitar with a local band called De Naturals.
“I miss the crowds, but I don’t miss being on the road,” admits Sinclair, shortly after welcoming me into his home one winter morning. Back in Chester County, Sinclair has settled into the role of family man. At the moment, his wife is at work in her current role as managing director of global technology at JPMorgan Chase. Their daughter, 13-year-old Elizabeth, is at school.
As we go from room to room, the flow of the conversation shifts as we view a diverse collection of signed photos from celebrities like auto designer and racer Carroll Shelby (Sinclair once drove a blue Shelby), singer, songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson, and ill-fated Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious. A curious guest could take up to an hour perusing the walls from the living room to the dining room. Even in the mudroom, there’s a small but impressive grouping of Bangsite (calcium carbide) toy artillery cannons. “Some people associate collecting with clutter, but it’s not the same,” says Sinclair. “It’s really about a passion for something you love, and you want to have other things like it.”
Moving through the house, we pass a mantel with many of Elizabeth’s ribbons for show jumping and fox hunting. “She’s just as good as a figure skater as she is on horses,” says Sinclair, adding that she’s not yet sure which sport she’ll pursue.
Finally, we arrive in Sinclair’s study, a contrast of up-to-date computer technology and old- fashioned memorabilia. He opens a desk drawer to show me the historic cigar bands he inherited from his late brother. Other boxes contain the military patch collection, along with Sinclair’s gear from his Boy Scout days.
Then I get a glimpse of the Soviet-era military uniforms. Sinclair became fascinated when the Soviet Union was disbanded in 1991—and cash-hungry bureaucrats sold everything they could get their hands on. He bought his first Russian uniform in 1997, and he set about becoming an expert on the subject.
The more Sinclair learned about the uniforms, the more he purchased—mainly ones from 1935 to 1945 and primarily through a broker he still works with. “I have every branch variation from the beginning to the end of the war,” he says. “I bought the best of the best as it became available.”
The jacket worn by Stalin has minute holes in the fabric. “Those weren’t made by moths,” Sinclair says. “Stalin smoked a pipe, and those are tiny burn marks.”
A closet contains only a few items in his uniform collection. A majority of it is housed in a storage facility that keeps works of art secure in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment.
Back at the computer, Sinclair pulls up old Time magazine covers featuring Russian generals in uniforms that are now in his collection. On a nearby coffee table are two beautifully illustrated volumes that detail the collection, both of them written and edited by Sinclair.
Surprisingly, the uniforms are something Sinclair probably won’t keep. “It’s my hope that one day the entire collection will be in the Hermitage,” he says, referring to the famous museum in St. Petersburg. As Russian nationalism has grown in recent years, oligarchs have shown interest in buying the collection. Sinclair has been in talks with Sotheby’s auction house about brokering a private sale. Malcolm Forbes’ family sold his collection of Russian Fabergé eggs in a similar manner in 2004.
Before I leave, Sinclair autographs his latest book, a catalog of the hundreds of cigar bands, with a cover that approximates a cigar box.
He may no longer be on the road, but he has no problem keeping busy.