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How Appalachian Music Is Helping A Rural Kentucky Town Deal With Opioid Addiction


To eastern Kentucky now. It's one of the regions hardest hit by the opioid crisis. One tiny community is trying to help people in recovery by leaning into their local mountain music heritage. Caitlin Tan of West Virginia Public Broadcasting brings us the story.


CAITLIN TAN, BYLINE: The small town of Hindman is surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains. It's off the beaten path. And since its establishment in the 1800s, people have been getting together and playing music.


TAN: In fact, one of the few businesses in the town is the Appalachian School of Luthiery, which teaches people how to build stringed instruments. On this night, musicians are warming up for the Knott County Downtown Radio Hour.


TAN: It's essentially a recorded open mic hosted once a month by the luthiery school. Doug Naselroad is the program's founder.

DOUG NASELROAD: Who wants to - come on. It's just a microphone. It doesn't bite.


NASELROAD: Now, I know some of you guys have come down to play.

TAN: Naselroad has a head full of salt-and-pepper loose curls, with a matching mustache and a bushy goatee. He's from Kentucky. And in his work, he's built guitars for people like John Prine, Lyle Lovett and Jamie Lee Curtis. Tonight, Naselroad is coaxing several nervous musicians onstage, most of whom are in recovery from drug addiction. Here's Scott Beatty.

SCOTT BEATTY: I just had a sister recently pass away - another one. She died of ALS. And I wrote this for my mom and my dad, so bear with me if I get through it without crying.

(Singing) Mommy's crying now, and everything's so cold. Daddy's lying on the bathroom floor.

TAN: Beatty is learning to make stringed instruments at the luthiery school through a program called culture of recovery, which Naselroad founded two years ago. All of the people in the program are recovering from drug addiction. And through this school, the small town of Hindman is rebuilding its identity on the backbone of its musical heritage. So far, about 40 people have been through the program. Naselroad tells the story of Ricky, a student in recovery who is making a ukulele.

NASELROAD: Well, Ricky was tapping in the frets in the fingerboard. And he's just tap, tap, tapping away. And he kind of was biting his lip. And he looked up at me, and his eyes got real big. And I thought, what'd you do? Did you hit your finger? What - you know, what happened? And he looked at me, and he smiled. And he said, I just can't believe it; I'm making something.


TAN: Inside the school, several people work on their instruments. It looks a bit like a rustic wood shop and an upscale music store all in one. Teacher Paul Williams is helping them build guitars, dulcimers and mandolins.

PAUL WILLIAMS: Now you take the stick and put it in the center. Then you bend it.

TAN: Williams says teaching the guys in recovery is personal for him.

WILLIAMS: I lost two brothers myself to opioid addiction. So yeah, I've got a connection to that. I think it's a great thing to give people a chance to make a second chance at life.

TAN: One student named Shane Lore is staining the fretboard of his mandolin. He's new to playing music and says he never considered building an instrument before.

SHANE LORE: That's something I've never had - is patience. If I want to do something, I want to do it right then and there. But with this process, doing a lot of just waiting. So it's giving me a lot of patience and tolerance.


TAN: It's getting late, and the Knott County Radio Hour is winding down. Outside, the moon is out. Crickets are chirping. The town is empty. But inside, an informal music jam starts.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Hold on - (singing) when all us boys were trying...

TAN: The nervous energy is gone, replaced with full-faced smiles. They're just playing for the joy of it now, strumming songs they all know.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) And I will follow you to Virgie.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Although it hurts me so to lay to rest this mountain beauty.

TAN: For NPR News, I'm Caitlin Tan in Knott County, Ky.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) I can see her up there, Cody. I can see her through the pines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Caitlin Tan