Banjo-pickin’ for Jesus: the bluegrass music of “The Hillbilly Thomists”
Some years ago, I briefly toured the Midwest playing harmonica with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Quite how an English teenager came to be there still mystifies me as much as it surely did the concert-going publics of Lawrence, Kan., or Des Moines, Iowa. In fact, my time among bluegrass royalty is only the second most improbable-but-true story of my life. The first is how, some five years later, I came be baptized into the Catholic Church, influenced largely by drinking with Dominicans.
Those facts are, for the most part, unconnected. I mention them here solely to reassure you: When it comes to the intersection of Catholic mendicant orders and the musical traditions of Appalachia, this ain’t—as we Brits are wont to say—my first rodeo. (It is my third, actually, though that, too, is a story for another time.)
“The Hillbilly Thomists” is the eponymous debut album of a group of two Dominican priests and eight student-brothers, based out of the order’s House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Several hail from the sort of town that just sounds like it produces lightning-fingered mandolin and fiddle players: Gallatin, Tenn.; Libertytown, Md.; Henderson, Ky. The ensemble, founded in 2013, takes its name from one of Flannery O’Connor’s famous self-descriptions: “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas...I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” Don’t you just love them already?
Even banjo pickin’, in the hands of the Order of Preachers, can be an exercise in ressourcement.
It gets even better. The album cover consists of a slightly blurred portrait in black-and-white (though with Dominicans, who could tell?). Thirteen friars sit formally with their assorted instruments. All but one stare blankly at the camera, as though fearing the photographer might steal their animae with that thar new-fangled contraption. It looks for all the world like a daguerreotype dug up from John Lomax’s attic. In truth, it is an archival photo of music-making Illinois Dominicans from the 1920s. Even banjo pickin’, in the hands of the Order of Preachers, can be an exercise in ressourcement.
The stage is, then, perfectly set for a grave disappointment. One starts to play the album, hoping—but not daring to actually expect—that fabled “high lonesome sound,” infusing old Anglo-Celtic folk tunes and homegrown spirituals with an authentically American feel that sounds as old as the mountains themselves. (And these particular mountains—the Appalachians are, geologically speaking, part of the same range as the Scottish highlands—are very old indeed.)
It is a disappointment that never comes. From Alpha to Omega, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” to “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” this is bluegrass of the highest order. The song selections, arrangements and musicianship are all superb. Given the surpassing quality throughout, relative highlights are difficult to pick. My personal favorites, though, include “Angel Band,” “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”—standards whose interpretations here hold up against any in the canon (the late Dr. Stanley’s own included)—and the beautifully harmonized a capella rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
From Alpha to Omega, this is bluegrass of the highest order.
The album’s one original composition, Brother Justin Bolger’s rousing “I’m a Dog,” also merits mention. It is both a knowing nod toward a rather less wholesome trope in the folk-country tradition (cf. “Salty Dog Blues,” “Call Me a Dog,” “Move It On Over”) and a moving affirmation of the Dominicans’ evangelistic charism:
I’m a dog with a torch in my mouth for my Lord
Making noise while I got time
Spreading fire while I got earth
How you wish it was already lit
Give me your fire I’ll do your work
The album’s penultimate track, it serves as a by-now much-needed reminder that crafting bluegrass perfection is not, after all, the Hillbilly Thomists’ day job.
That said, the friars’ religious vocations and their musical avocation are not without a natural affinity. The Appalachian oeuvre is, of course, already imbued with a deeply Christian sensibility. Indeed, several of the songs here possess more kerygmatic oomph than I would guess some parishes hear in a month of homilies: “What Would You Give In Exchange for Your Soul?” being a case in point. In the hands of experts in both preaching and liturgical singing, these well-worn folk standards reclaim the fervor and sincerity with which they were first written, sung and faithfully passed on by Christians past.
As we have already done with the great treasures of Anglican and Methodist hymnody, there is a great deal in this (predominantly) Baptist patrimony with which to complement and enrich the Catholic “treasure of sacred music” (“Sacrosanctum Concilium,” No. 114). All of which raises an intriguing thought experiment—albeit one I hesitate to moot in the august pages of America. Just suppose that the Hillbilly Thomists had come along 50 years earlier. How different might today’s parish liturgies be if they had been influenced rather more by Dominicans from Appalachia, than by Jesuits from St. Louis?