Objection 1. It seems that a handful of Dominican friars (two handfuls on the album) should not be a bestselling bluegrass band. Bluegrass is Protestant stuff, soulful songs for whitewashed independent Baptist churches and big homey kitchens and not Latin nerds in white habits in Northeast D.C.
Objection 2. Further, bluegrass is as Americana as anything, and until John F. Kennedy bedded the White House and Bill Buckley built the conservative coalition, Catholics were not exactly accepted or accepting of the American thing. Americanism is a heresy after all.
Objection 3. Further, as Fr. Thomas Joseph White admitted in opening their concert near the White House this past week, bluegrass is as often about murder and unrequited love as it is about God. That a bunch of religious should sell thousands of copies of such music may strike as odd, considering their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
On the contrary, inspiring these good Catholic boys, Flannery O'Connor said of herself, "Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas . . . I'm a hillbilly Thomist," and band-member Br. Justin Bolger said in his original song "I'm a Dog"—after the traditional domini canis "hound of the Lord" pun on Dominican—"I’m a dog with a torch in my mouth for my Lord / Making noise while I got time."
I answer that, in an eponymous album and great live show under the watching eyes of the Catholic Information Center's wall-covering icons, "The Hillbilly Thomists" have marked their territory in the bluegrass world. To combine jargon hip both with the kids these days and with Dominicans—this music is fire.
Reply to Objection 1. They came to bluegrass and Thomism the usual ways, which is to say, through their culture—Catholics south of Dixie who love and play music. Fr. White learned mandolin in Kentucky while living in Cincinnati 16 years ago before moving to D.C., and with time, enough like-minded and like-voiced friars congregated here to make Hillbilly Thomists a going concern.
Reply to Objection 2. While bluegrass became what it is, adopting and combining English ballads and hymns and gospel and blues, Catholic sacred music was set in a traditional Latin liturgical context with Gregorian chant and all the other related resplendent smells and bells. But that hardly means when they take up the banjo that Thomas Aquinas's spiritual brothers are engaged in the—post-Vatican II—fairly common appropriation seen in singing a Luther hymn at Mass. For another influence on Americana is distinctly Catholic: Irish folk music.
Reply to Objection 3. The fathers and brothers of the Dominican House of Studies take a break from their scholarship to record an album of sacred music every year, to be sold to support the house's work and facilities, and the funds raised by this kitchen-table casual departure from convention will go to, apropos, a new kitchen. But homey as the music is, it is sacred nonetheless. Here's to hoping for more from the Hillbilly Thomists.
Published under: Music Reviews