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Marcus Oglesby plays harmonica with his band, Creek Don't Rise, and sings "White Coat Man," a song he wrote in response to the mark opioids left on his hometown in West Virginia. Photo by Abbey Oldham

LISTEN: This blues song tells the story of the opioid crisis — and the ‘white coat men’ who started it

“Hear the rattle in the holler — that ain’t no snake,” crooned Marcus Oglesby, making a sound with his mouth like a shaken bottle of pills.

The song, performed by Oglesby’s Appalachian blues band Creek Don’t Rise, silenced the bar. It told the Barboursville, West Virginia patrons a story they already knew, about how opioids had unraveled families and leveled communities in West Virginia and across the nation.

The title of the song “White Coat Man” is a reference to the doctors who prescribed and the pharmacists who sold opioid pills in the state. The Charleston Gazette reported that during a six-year-period, pharmaceutical companies flooded 780 million opioid pills into West Virginia, where some 2 million people live.

“Things in the holler, they ain’t the same,
People in the holler can’t stand the pain.
Used to owe it to the company store,
Now the white coat man’s gonna own your soul.”

The song is infused with blues and country and paints a bleak picture. A hungry baby cries after a mother spends grocery money on pills. A miner is injured on the job, and “there came the pills.” A woman blames the doctor for her struggle with addiction after she was prescribed painkillers.

After Oglesby sang his last note, the crowd offered up somber applause. Rich Cullum, a 62-year-old U.S. Army retiree with a white beard and a black leather biker vest, said the lyrics “grabs a hold of you.”

Cullum was born nearby in Huntington and lives in Barboursville. Despite heightened rates of substance use and overdose in West Virginia, a state with the nation’s highest drug overdose death rate, Cullum said his town “still has a lot of promise. It’s just in a low place right now.”

Oglesby, 42, said he found inspiration to write a song about opioids when he took a hard look at the place and people that raised him. Creek Don’t Rise typically sings about troublesome relationships or soulful covers of Tracy Chapman or B.B. King ballads. But when Oglesby returned to West Virginia in 2015 after spending 16 years in Tennessee, he found his hometown transformed.

Several neighbors and friends from high school now struggled with opioid use disorder, he said, including a high school friend whose wife underwent a medical procedure, was prescribed pain pills and developed an addiction, eventually going “over state lines from pill farm to pill farm.” Oglesby’s friend and his wife lost everything, he said. This, along with news reports he heard about the opioid epidemic, compelled him to write the song.

READ MORE: America Addicted

“Hear the rattle in the holler, that ain’t no snake,” he wrote, accompanied by percussion that sounded like a shaken bottle of pills. From there, Oglesby said, the words flowed, and he wrote the song in just 15 minutes.

Ronald Pen, a professor at the University of Kentucky who studies American music and the Appalachian region, said the song stands out to him among Appalachian music because it is “opportunistic in a way, but I don’t mean that in a negative sense… it’s a timely subject.”

But the song’s popular local reception leaves Oglesby with feelings of guilt.

“The last thing I want to do is benefit from this epidemic, but I feel that the job of an artist is to reflect what’s going on around them.”

Oglesby said he’s heartened to see that any “white coat man” who profited off opioids while knowing the risk now face repercussions, such as fines, jail time and lost medical licenses. But he fears those consequences may not be enough to help the thousands struggling in West Virginia with addiction.

“It seems like a virus that there’s no cure for,” Oglesby said. “You add in poverty and unemployment and depression. People are going to take the easy way out.”

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