What would you give in exchange for your soul? Bluegrass greats Bill Monroe and Doc Watson asked that question in one of their most memorable live recordings. It’s also the same one posed by Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., on one of the tracks of the first album released by the Hillbilly Thomists, a bluegrass band of Dominican friars from the Province of St. Joseph. Hopefully the answer to that question, if you’re a good, God-fearing Southerner, is “nuthin’.” But undoubtedly I would (and did) exchange $20 to own the Hillbilly Thomists’ recently-released sophomore album, “Living for the Other Side, currently a #1 bestseller at Amazon in folk music.
The Southern character for the band is evident even in their name, which is inspired by a comment by the late Southern Gothic writer (and Catholic) Flannery O’Connor. In a letter written in 1955, she noted, “Everybody who has read Wise Blood [her first novel] thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas . . . I’m a hillbilly Thomist.’ By this, O’Connor seemed to be wedding her Catholic theological commitments as a devotee of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas — and which informed much of her writing — with her thoroughly Southern character and style.
The Hillbilly Thomists are thus aptly named, as their music is both faithfully Southern and deeply Catholic — though with a respectful bow to their music’s Protestant heritage. Some members of the band are proud Southerners. Fr. Thomas Joseph White, a prominent and well-respected theologian now teaching in Rome (Italy, not Georgia), hails from Savannah, Georgia. On multiple occasions I’ve witnessed Fr. Thomas Joseph — a good friend of mine who is responsible for my own conversion to Catholicism — introduce himself as “Georgian.”
Though the band has representation from both sides of the Mason Dixon line, several other members of the Hillbilly Thomists are also proud Southerners, including one priest from western Kentucky, the home of bluegrass music. Another grew up in Nashville and had a career as a professional musician before entering religious life. Yet another was a fiddle player in a band in Asheville before becoming a Dominican. Two others are blood brothers from Cincinnati Ohio, and grew up in a family with strong folk and roots music interests.
The musicians certainly play a profoundly Southern form of music, both by genre and also attitude, which is humble, sincere, and pious. One song on the album offers a profusion of references to old standbys of Dixie, citing “Uncle Pen” ( a nod to Bill Monroe), “chicken in the bread pan pickin’ out dough” (a nod to old bluegrass favorite “Fire on the Mountain), and “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard. The lyrics to the song “Heaven or Tennessee” references “wise blood,” the aforementioned story by Flannery O’Connor. Speaking of that song, Fr. Thomas Joseph White in an interview with The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher wryly explained his love for Nashville this way: “Perhaps the certitude of this song is that all of geographical space can be mapped by its distance from the Ryman Auditorium. And perhaps that’s in fact objectively true.”
In that same interview, band member Fr. Jonah Teller, O.P. in true Southern modesty, sought to describe their peculiar style of music: “We also want to be clear (for all the bluegrass purists out there) that we don’t try to label ourselves as a bluegrass band. We’re much more Americana, but bluegrass is what got attached to us, and it’s stuck for the time being. But yeah, truegrass is nearer the mark…” In a demonstration of the wide reach of their musical range — three of the brothers actually have degrees in music — one of the best tracks on the new album is a cover of the old African-American spiritual “Jacob’s Ladder.” On another track, one of the friars plays the spoons.
Writing to me for this article for the Abbeville Institute, Fr. Thomas Joseph noted that influences of the band are “a little diverse,” which he views as a strength. “Bluegrass music is definitely a major influence though the band is more an Americana folk band influenced by bluegrass than it is a bluegrass band as such.” He cites an eclectic group of inspirations, including Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Ricky Scaggs, Bob Dylan, The Band, Gillian Welch, and Dave Rawlings. “Welch’s haunting lyrics and Rawling’s solos have influenced us all I think,” he explains. “Of course none of us take ourselves to be on the level of these people musically, we just take inspiration from them and enjoy playing music as an avocation. But recording and playing music has a kind of liberating seriousness to it, since it is engaging to try to do it well, and we like the songs we are playing and enjoy experimenting with how to play them well.”
Perhaps my favorite track on the album is “Bourbon, bluegrass and the Bible,” sung by Fr. Thomas Joseph White, both because the lyrics reflect the gritty Southern poetry of O’Connor, and they are three of my favorite things. “I stared at my life and it stared back,” Fr. Thomas Joseph sings. In a nod to the devastation of the coronavirus, he adds: “Death’s in the world, and it’s gone viral. Everybody’s talkin bout a new revival…. But when it’s a question of love and survival, bourbon, bluegrass, and the Bible.” Explaining that unusual alliterative trinity, Fr. Thomas Joseph told Dreher: “Maybe those lyrics mean that the Bible, bluegrass, and bourbon help you make it through. Maybe it means, in crisis you have to settle on the essentials. Or maybe it’s a kind of redneck creed, something you put on a camouflage trucker hat.” If anyone wants to market that slogan, I’d certainly buy the t-shirt.
The band, which began informally in the mid-2000s when the friars would play for small groups in Washington, D.C. and New York City, has of course always maintained an explicit religious focus. Although the ages of band members range from thirty to almost fifty, band member Fr. Joseph Hagan, O.P. explains: “So many of our songs are about looking forward to heaven and trusting that Jesus will lead us there. That desire for heaven keeps us young.” Many of the lyrics on their latest album are taken directly out of Holy Scripture, which are evidenced in titles like “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed” (Matthew 25:1-13) and “Give Me a Drink,” the latter a reference to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:7).
The friars are eager and happy to acknowledge their indebtedness to Protestant Americans who have developed such a rich religious musical tradition. Fr. Jonah Teller, O.P. for example notes: “I think we should really say that we’re all indebted to all those people—mostly Protestants—who developed such a strong, really glorious culture of music in this country.” One certainly hears on many of the tracks — most of which are originals rather than covers — the style of music and emotional spirituality one might hear in a Southern tent revival.
Most everyone in the band agrees that “Chasing Money No More,” a piano-driven, rockin’ track is the best song on the album. My other personal favorites include “Our Help is in the Name of the Lord,” and Jericho Blues. Though I don’t mind the slower bluegrass and country numbers, I confess to be partial to the fast stuff: Bill Monroe’s “Mule Skinner Blues,” Flatt & Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” or the Osborne Brothers’ “Rocky Top.” Thankfully, on both albums, the friars have been happy to oblige.
Many of the lyrics on this excellent 56 minutes of “truegrass” seem especially fitting for 2021, when Americans still suffer from an economically disastrous pandemic and intense and seemingly irresolvable social political tensions that undermine our faith in God’s plan. “Waters are up to my neck. Our help is in the name of the Lord, every hour, every day, our help is in the name of Lord,” we hear the friars sing. I don’t know about you, but that’s a refrain I’ll be glad to remember as I seek to survive another year that looks to be a little too much like 2020. “Lead me by the hand,” we hear them cry on another. These songs are not only for the bluegrass enthusiast, but for our time. May the friars’ music, like their preaching, reach a wide audience.