It is a hot, late summer night in the small town of Hindman, Kentucky. The sun is setting against the backdrop of the steep Appalachian Mountains. Musicians are warming up for the Knott County Downtown Radio Hour.
It is essentially a recorded open mic hosted once a month by the Appalachian School of Luthiery, a school that teaches people how to build wooden stringed instruments. Doug Naselroad is the founder and the master luthier of the program.
“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 people like John Prine, Lyle Lovatt and Jamie Lee Curtis.
Tonight, Naselroad is coaxing several nervous musicians on stage, encouraging them to play songs they have written. Most of the group are in recovery from drug addiction, which is not uncommon 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 those 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 started a program two years ago through the luthiery called the ‘Culture of Recovery.’ All the people enrolled learn how to build their own instrument as part of drug recovery.
Through this, the town of Hindman is rebuilding 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 taping 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 is helping 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 (we're just using his first name to protect his identity) is staining the fretboard of his mandolin. He is new to playing music and he says he never considered building an instrument before.
“That’s something I’ve never had is patience. If I want to do something, I do it right then and there,” Shane says. “But with this process I’m doing a lot of waiting. It’s giving me a lot of patience and tolerance.”
And that is the hope, but Naselroad’s long term goal is for the group to use the skills to find employment. Which is 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 are former students.
Nathan Smith 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.
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, 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 that is 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 is part of an Inside Appalachia episode featuring stories on luthiers in the region. Listen to the show Sunday's at 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. or wherever you download podcasts.