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All kinds of stringed instruments fill the storefront of the Appalachian School of Luthiery in Knott County, Kentucky. There are antique pieces, like an old banjo and a giant replica of a mountain dulcimer. And there are newly built instruments, like acoustic guitars and an unusual hurdy-gurdy/dulcimer hybrid.
Beyond the windows, the rest of the building is a workshop filled with tools, templates, and materials for hand-crafting stringed instruments. Here, people come from next door, the next state, and around the world, to learn the art of luthiery for themselves. The school is part of the Appalachian Artisan Center, a nonprofit that helps develop the region’s arts economy.
Creating stringed instruments has long been part of the culture in this Appalachian area. The first hour-glass shaped dulcimers were made in Knott County in 1871, according to the luthiery’s website.
Doug Naselroad is the head luthier at the school and continues in this long history of teaching the craft. Now, Naselroad and others are working on an economic development plan to help local people craft a livelihood with luthiery skills. The nascent Troublesome Creek Instrument Company will build high-end guitars in a small manufacturing facility out of Appalachian hardwoods, some of which have never been used in instruments before, like black locust and red spruce.
“These Appalachian trees produce some of the best tone wood in the world,” says Naselroad. “They really make beautiful, resonant instruments.”
This is a place in need of more economic opportunity. Nine of the 30 poorest counties in the United States in 2017 were in eastern Kentucky, according to the Census Bureau. Naselroad says there are few jobs and no help-wanted section in the newspaper. There has never been a manufacturer in Hindman, and an outside company is not likely to build one any time soon.
These economic realities and a vacant woodshop inspired Naselroad and his partners to develop their facility. Troublesome Creek Instrument Company is one of the creative new enterprises taking root in the region. It adds to other projects in Hindman, like the Artisan Center and Hindman Settlement School, both of which contribute to the local economy through cultural activities. The instrument company will also support other local businesses, like the lumberyard, Naselroad said.
Company employees will complete a six-month training program. The manufacturing will be a hybrid of digital fabrication and old-world hand skills. The goal is to create 60 well-paying, highly skilled jobs for the community.
Naselroad said he also hopes Troublesome Creek Instrument Company can be part of addressing another pressing problem in the region – addiction recovery. Each week, the School of Luthiery opens its doors to participants in the Culture of Recovery, an arts-based recovery program run by the Artisan Center. He said promising candidates from the Culture of Recovery program will be encouraged to apply for employment with the instrument company. Crucially, a felony conviction – a frequent result of opioid addiction – will not automatically disqualify job applicants.
One person who completed county drug court has already been hired in the first handful of employees.
Naselroad has seen the difference that meaningful work can make in the lives of those in recovery.
“They complete a heroic process of recovery and embark on a new life discipline,” says Naselroad. “The worst thing is for them to be released to nothing. They need a goal to work towards.”
Troublesome Creek, with primary funding through the Appalachian Regional Commission, is structured as a non-profit with plans to be commercially sustainable. One avenue for marketing will be building relationships through the National Association of Music Merchants.
It is an ambitious project: beautiful guitars, meaningful employment, and a sustainable business. Naselroad is under no illusion about the guarantee of success, but he likes where things are heading.
“Even now, we are folding our funding into paychecks for families,” he said. “That is worth doing even on a bad day.”