A small sign reading “Dulcimers Made Here” leads into the Appalachian School of Luthiery in downtown Hindman, Kentucky, a small American town huddled in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.
The smell of toasted sawdust intermingles with a faint Appalachian tune wafting in gently from an unseen room. A handful of bearded men sit around various lightly coloured skeletons of guitars, banjos, mandolins, and dulcimers musing over how to start their day.
Hindman is buried in the heart of Knott County, in Kentucky’s historic coal country. Not far from the famous Harlan County, USA, Hindman is a place whose struggling economic reputation is only surpassed by its deep and profound cultural contributions to American music.
This is a place where distance is measured by ‘as the crow flies,’ where moonshine is still made deep in family hollers, and where you can still catch the old timers dancing flatfoot style to rollicking oldtime music at community center gatherings every week.
Hindman is a place wholly unique and deeply American with what has become an all too American problem.
Troublesome Creek, which runs through the heart of Hindman, metaphorically reflects the disquiet that has become a familiar narrative of Eastern Kentucky, Appalachia, to the rest of America.
Knott County’s poverty rate of 32.6% and median household income of $30,503 is a product of big coal’s swift withdrawal from the region after the area’s resources were dug and blasted out of the land, leaving only scarred mountain tops, rusty colored streams, and a community of people waiting in vain for King Coal to return and provide the care they’d become accustomed to.
Nathan Smith, a large man with a dark beard running over his mouth and chin and a voice that sounds like coal rocks on a conveyer belt, worked in the mines for 7 years, but as the jobs dried up he found himself without direction or a steady income.
“I had been laid off from the coal mines and I got hooked on drugs really bad after that.” He explains “I was going down a path that would have either laid me in prison or dead. I think getting in trouble was the best thing that ever happened to me because it got me to the Luthiery.”