ACP Music and Medicine Elective Gives Rise to Original Song

OAKWOOD, VA (APRIL 26, 2021) –  The healing power of music when coupled with medicine — as well as ways to use music as an education tool — are the focus of the Appalachian College of Pharmacy’s (ACP) music and medicine elective which also resulted in the creation of an original song by three members of the class.

The song, “Coal Mine in Kentucky,” was recently recorded by the students, Erika Coleman; Sydney Smith; and Tyler Ball, who call themselves the “Black Dragons” in a nod to Black Coal and the ACP (Garden) Dragon mascot. Dr. Kris Preston, who teaches the class at ACP, joined in on mandolin in the song and video which focuses on black lung and the importance of coal mining.

Preston, in addition to teaching at ACP is also a member of the all-female band, “Coaltown Dixie,” which performs in the region.

The students, all of whom will graduate from ACP next month with their doctor of pharmacy degrees,  previously joined in to do a song on the same topic, using the music from Jamey Johnson’s “In Color.” Kaitlyn Calhoun, who was a member of the group during the music and medicine elective, also joined them for that one. They were asked to perform it at a couple of events last year, including at the Whitesburg Mountain Heritage Festival in Kentucky.

Later, Coleman, Smith and Ball sat down with Preston to compose their original piece, “Coal Mine in Kentucky,” which can be heard at

Coleman, who is from east Kentucky and graduated from Belfry High School, attended Eastern Kentucky University before choosing ACP to be closer to home.

“To say that we found inspiration for the song would be an understatement, I think,” Coleman said. “I grew up in coal. It’s always been there. I remember my Dad, covered in coal dust, from the very beginning – after school, at proms and ever since. I went to college on coal scholarships.

“I think writing the song gave us a way to show everyone else what being a coal miner’s daughter and loving a miner is like,” Coleman continued. “Unless you’ve seen it firsthand, it’s hard to understand the magnitude of what these men give up.”

Coleman noted every job comes with sacrifice, but she added, “coal miners sacrifice so much that goes unnoticed. They miss time at home, they cut holidays and birthdays short, they lose sleep and most don’t see daylight due to their hours. They push their bodies and unfortunately, some sacrifice their health, all for the greater good. The remarkable thing is, though, they want to. They’re proud of what they do.”

Smith, a native of Canada, Ky., also went to Belfry High School, graduating a couple of years prior to Coleman. From there, she went to the University of Pikeville, where she completed her pharmacy school prerequisites before transferring to ACP. She worked as a pharmacy technician from 2012 to 2018, before coming to ACP.

When she signed up for the music and medicine elective at ACP, she said she had no idea what an impact it would have on her life, but she said, that impact has been significant.

“My father suffers from Progressive Massive Fibrosis (progressive black lung),” Smith said. “He worked only 16 years before he suffered a back injury that ended his career. It wasn’t until years after he was injured before he developed symptoms of black lung.

“Growing up a coal miner’s daughter,” she continued,” I saw how hard working these men were and eventually how much they suffered just to make a living for their families. I think the rest of the world has an idea of coal mining that is much different than mine. With this song, I wanted to show my point of view of the disease and how it has impacted my life. Music has always been my medicine and getting to lay out my feelings about a topic that is personal to me was very special.

“The overall experience has been very overwhelming,” Smith added. “I never thought this song would have this much attention. But I am very thankful for the opportunity to share something so special to me and to show how proud I am of my Dad – not only him, but other coal miners.”

Ball, a native of Bluefield, Va., noted the way the class worked resulted in the collaboration he, Coleman, Smith and Preston took one step further. He graduated from Graham High School in 2016 and went to Southwest Virginia Community College. From there, he transferred to ACP.

“In music and medicine, we were assigned groups and the group I was assigned to was with Sydney and Erika,” Ball recalled. “We were tasked with making a music video in really any style we wanted, no matter how musically talented we were. Me, being a guitar player; and Sydney, being an absolutely  amazing singer with Erika and her Cajon with awesome beats came up with covering “In Color” by Jamey Johnson. This was inspired by Sydney and Erika’s background in coal. Both of their fathers were coal miners and have been affected by the unforgiving work schedule and toll on the body it takes to be a coal miner.

“We covered that song, changing the lyrics to fit a coal/coal miner/coal miner’s family feel to it. The song turned out great. It was very impactful and moving,” Ball added. “I would get chills just playing the song and hearing Sydney’s voice with Erika’s booming Cajon to really drive it home. That song was very well-received and Dr. Preston loved it so much, she actually started playing with us.”

From there, Ball said, the inspiration came for the original song with the same subject matter. Smith, Coleman and Preston, he said, wrote it from their own experiences.

“I didn’t have any hand in writing the song,” Ball said. “I was just able to give them a guitar sound to really pull their piece together and make it something beautiful and powerful. I never imagined that first song we did covering Jamey Johnson would have turned into an actual original song. Getting it recorded, being on YouTube and to doing this little interview — the overall experience has been so much fun to be a part of and I am a little taken aback to see how far it’s come and continues to go.”

It took about a year to finish the song, with the students working with Preston in a gazebo in a park where they could work on it together in a socially distanced fashion to comply with COVID-19 recommendations.

After they were vaccinated, Preston said, they went into the studio to record the piece.

“I’m really proud of it and of them,” Preston said. “It took a long time to get it together, but once we did it and got it up on YouTube, we had more than 2,000 views in five days.”

The Music and Medicine elective, Preston and the students agreed, was the start of the entire collaboration.

“Through the elective, students learn about different disease states and medicines related to them,” Preston said, noting that by adding a little music to the equation, memory is also improved.

“It helps students learn the different aspects of disease states and we also talk about music being a healing resource itself,” Preston said. “We talk about how music therapy is used at child oncology centers and in other settings as well.”

Preston noted the final project in the class is always a performance piece where students in groups write a song related to health, disease states, medications or advocate for good health. Some songs are set to existing music or are parodies of songs with the lyrics changed to match to music and medicine topics  covered. 

“Students are put into bands and work as a group on assignments,” Preston said. “The get to know each other a little better by working together and in the end can choose to do their performance live or by video. It’s amazing all the talent we have.”

“The music and medicine elective was a class I looked forward to,” Smith said. “I have always had a love for music, so conjoining my love for pharmacy and music was a no brainer for me.”

“Music and medicine was my favorite class, especially because of the music and Dr. Preston, “ Ball said. “I think the class is something that has somewhat untapped potential. Music is one of the very few things that all humans connect and relate to.

“There are many different avenues that can be explored medicine-wise and ways it could help or improve an individual’s health — from helping someone’s memory, depression, PTSD, rehabilitation, stress and more than we even know about,” Ball added.

“I think ‘music and medicine’ gave us our voice,” Coleman said. “It taught us that music isn’t just about portraying feelings, it can also become an education tool. Hopefully, people hear what we wrote and learn more about coal and black lung and maybe even find a way to say all the things that are important to them, too.”

She added, “ACP gave me a chance to learn and give back to the area that made me — that’s why I chose to be a student ambassador here – I want the towns we came from to stay alive and for people to have the same opportunities I was blessed with. After graduation, I hope to do just that. I’m not sure where my next steps are, but I know that they’re in Appalachia.”

The Appalachian College of Pharmacy is the only three-year Doctor of Pharmacy program in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Founded in 2003, the college accepted its first students in 2005. It is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE) and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). Its mission is to cultivate a learning community committed to education, community outreach and the professional development of pharmacists. Its graduate pharmacists are now practicing throughout the United States.

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