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Bluegrass Music

The Hillbilly Thomists: More Bluegrass-Meets-Catholicism

Remember a few months back when I told you about the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word from Birmingham, Alabama that did a video of them performing the bluegrass standard “I’ll Fly Away”? If not, here’s a link: https://luegra.design.blog/2020/08/07/nuns-performing-bluegrass-and-diversity/.

Anyway, I bring them up again as they were the source for my latest bluegrass discovery. Through their website (https://www.sisterservants.org/) I learned about the Hillbilly Thomists. Taking their name from a comment made by author Flannery O’Connor, the group of Dominican friars, priests and brothers study intensely the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. However, some of them are also move by the lyrics of many folk and bluegrass gospel songs. Under the guidance of Father Thomas Joseph White, the rotating group of brethren perform on traditional folk and bluegrass instruments (guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, fiddle), as well as other traditional and ethnic instruments such as drums, piano, bodhran and accordion.

Seeing them on stage, you would think that you were to be serenaded by an age-old Gregorian chant. However, they pick up their stringed instruments and kick into a religious folk standard such as “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms” or “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” While it may look strange to the eye at first notice, it becomes apparent that these men of Catholic conviction also know how to jam!

YouTube is filled with videos of the Hillbilly Thomists, whether it be live performances or professionally created music videos. What comes across is that they are religious, but they are also human. They like to have fun. They crack jokes, become self-deprecating about their musical skills, and also love to play secular music (one of the many YT vids shows them jamming to “Whiskey In The Jar”). Take away their robes and dress them in suits and ties, and you would think that they were another great-sounding bluegrass band.

However, it is their conviction to the Lord that makes them special. Jesus and his disciples also loved to laugh, sing, and dance. I do believe that God is looking down on the Hillbilly Thomists and smiling, probably even tapping his foot. Catholicism has always gotten a bad rap when it comes to music. The images of friars walking slowly and chanting in Latin seems to many like a depressing drone. Yet if one really takes a step back, the drone can be enlightening, with fluctuations of tones that the heart reacts to.

The Hillbilly Thomists take this a few steps further. They know that music makes people feel better generally. Moreover, the messages that come across in the standard bluegrass gospel songs are ones of hope, not fear. They also show to others that even priests and brothers can have human fun without insulting God. Theirs is a life of devotion to God and Christ, and that devotion can include singing praises in a popular style of music such as bluegrass and folk.

I urge you to check out a few of the Hillbilly Thomists’ videos and, if moved, purchase the album they releases a few years ago (https://www.dominicanajournal.org/music/the-hillbilly-thomists/). It may help you, as Lucinda Williams says, “Get right with God.”

Chew on it and comment.