People have been playing music together in the small Appalachian town of Hindman, Ky., since it was founded in the late 1800s. Today, one of the few businesses still open in the town is the Appalachian School of Luthiery, which teaches people how to build wooden stringed instruments. Now that school is playing a role in helping the local community overcome drug addiction.
On a summer night, musicians warm up for the Knott County Downtown Radio Hour. It is essentially a recorded open mic hosted once a month by Doug Naselroad, the founder of the program and the master luthier, someone who makes instruments like guitars and banjos.
“Who wants to come up? Come on it’s just a microphone — it doesn’t bite,” he says. “Now I know some of you guys have come down to play.”
Naselroad has a head full of salt and pepper loose curls, with a matching mustache and a bushy goatee. He is from Kentucky, and in his work he has built guitars for country musicians like John Prine and Lyle Lovett and actress Jamie Lee Curtis.
On this night, Naselroad coaxes several nervous musicians on stage, encouraging them to play songs they had written. Most of the group are in recovery from drug addiction, which is common in this part of the state.
Eastern Kentucky has been one of the regions hardest hit by both a dying coal industry and the opioid crisis. In Knott County, the drug overdose and mortality rates are more than double that of the nation’s and are even higher than the average within the state.
“The opioid epidemic has absolutely ravaged this community,” Naselroad says. “Literally everybody and their brother has been hit hard by this situation.”
Because of this, Naselroad helped start a program two years ago called Culture of Recovery. It is a holistic approach that offers either entrepreneurial or arts and crafts apprenticeship classes to people enrolled in the local drug court and addiction rehabilitation center. The apprenticeship through the luthiery school is one of the more popular choices.
The Culture of Recovery program is helping the town of Hindman rebuild its identity on the backbone of its musical heritage. Old time mountain music has long been played in the hills of Knott County, but there is a history of instrument building too. The mountain dulcimer, often heard in old-time Appalachian music, is thought to have originated there in the mid-1800s.
So far, about 40 people have been through the Culture of Recovery program. Naselroad tells the story of Ricky, a student in recovery who was making a ukulele:
“Old Ricky was tapping in the frets on the finger board, tap, tap, tapping away. And he was kind of biting his lip and he looked up at me and I thought, ‘What did you do? Did you hurt yourself?’ And he smiled and said, ‘I can’t believe it I’m making something.’ “
Inside the school there are tall shelves filled with planks of wood. There are two rows of worktables, with machines in the back. The walls are lined with music festival posters and beautiful stringed instruments worth thousands of dollars sit in stands.
A group is working on their instruments today. Teacher Paul Williams helps them build guitars, dulcimers and mandolins.
He wears suspenders and has a full-faced white beard and rosy cheeks. He says teaching people in recovery is personal for him.
“I lost two brothers myself to opioid addiction. So, I’ve got a connection to that and I think it’s a great thing to give them a second chance at life,” Williams says.
One student named Shane Lore is staining the fretboard of his mandolin. He enrolled in the apprenticeship after being admitted to the local drug rehabilitation center.
Lore has spent a lot of time working in construction, but he says he had never considered building an instrument before. Now he has made three.
“That’s something I’ve never had is patience. If I want to do something, I do it right then and there,” Lore says. “But with this process I’m doing a lot of waiting. It’s giving me a lot of patience and tolerance.”
Teaching a skill or an activity to aid in recovery is a research-backed method called occupational therapy. Although the luthiery apprenticeship is not taught by occupational therapists, it has the potential to yield similar benefits, says Sally Wasmuth, assistant professor at Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis, who researches this occupational therapy and recovery.
“Addiction is an occupation — not so much work, but something that is central to a person,” Wasmuth says. “Addiction activates their reward center, it’s a coping mechanism. It defines what they will do in the morning — it dictates what they will do on a day-to-day basis. So when someone turns to recovery there’s this massive deficit because that activity is no longer there telling them what to do.”
Occupational therapy is a holistic approach that attempts to engage people in meaningful activities, says Wasmuth. She adds that programs, like the Culture of Recovery at the luthiery school, can help participants fill a void — it can help them think about something else other than addiction, and even recovery.
“We learned they don’t want to talk about their problems all day long. They don’t want to think about it all the time,” she says. “They don’t want to constantly be trying to fight for solutions. And so adding something, like making an instrument, could be really beneficial.”
And Naselroad hopes to take it a step further. His long term goal is for the group to use the skills to find employment. That’s why he started the Troublesome Creek Stringed Instrument Company, building guitars for market. It is about half a mile down the road from the luthiery school. So far, he employs five people, two of whom were former students.
Nathan Smith, 39, is a burly man with a graying, black ponytail and a lived-in beard that touches his chest. He attended the luthiery school during his rehab a year ago.
“It’s an amazing feeling. It’s something I never imagined doing. It’s kept me busy, kept me focused. It was a new start,” Smith says.
Prior, Smith had worked ten years underground in the coal mines. He stopped not only because the industry was on the decline, but also his health was failing from the working conditions.
“It’s a total different world under the mountain,” he says.
Smith also battled with substance abuse for years, and methamphetamine ultimately landed him in jail for ten days in the summer of 2017. It was through the Knott County Drug Court that Smith found himself doing something he had no knowledge of — building guitars.
“I love music, so it was something I knew I would enjoy — I just didn’t know how much until I got started,” he says.
Smith has been in recovery for two years now and has a job as a luthier.
Back at the luthiery school, the Knott County Radio Hour is winding down.
But it is after that one really gets a sense of Knott County and its mountain music heritage. Outside the moon is out, crickets are chirping and the town is empty, but inside an informal music jam starts.
The guys from the recovery center are gathered around a worktable, surrounded by equipment used to build the very instruments they are playing. The nervous energy is gone, replaced with full-faced smiles. They are just playing for the joy of it now, strumming songs they all know and singing along.
This story was originally reported as part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways project.