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”Bourbon, Bluegrass, & the Bible”: The Hillbilly Thomists Hit Nashville

January 27, 2021


Dominicans are just the coolest.

Following their thirteenth-century founder, St. Dominic, today’s Dominicans are “learned, disciplined, and poor”; but I’ve yet to meet one who does not also radiate the joy of the Gospel and simply know how to have a good time. Dominicans always preaching, but never preachy, and this way of being is on beautiful display in the new sophomore album, Living for the Other Side, by the Hillbilly Thomists, a group of friars from the Province of St. Joseph. Their eponymous 2017 debut record was magnificent, and well received. Their new effort takes their art to a whole new level, inviting both a greater musical appreciation and a deeper devotion to the Lord who inspired the creators and performers of the album’s fourteen tracks.

On Living for the Other Side (which releases on January 28—the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas), the personnel is mostly the same as the Hillbilly Thomists’ first record, and as with their earlier effort, they prove that they can play their instruments as well as the best old hands in a Kentucky holler or a Nashville studio. But this time, ten of the fourteen cuts are original compositions, written by Fr. Justin Bolger, OP, and Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP (and one with a co-writing credit to Fr. Jonah Teller, OP). Fr. Bolger described the creative process to me by email:

We recorded over ten days at our house in the Catskills. . . . We shared demos with each other before the recording session, so we had a sense of the songs. But we did the arranging of songs on the spot. Our basic day consisted of Mass and prayers together, record one song in the morning and one in the afternoon, dinner together, and relaxed jamming on tunes in the evening. It was a lot of work, but the rhythm worked well and was conducive to our life together as friars.

The result was heavenly.

The influences on this record start with the traditional bluegrass, folk, and Gospel style from the earlier album. The minimalist opening track by Fr. Bolger, “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed,” feels at first like a spontaneous tune at a church picnic. I imagine people gently setting down their Styrofoam plates of fried chicken, potato salad, and baked beans as the track progresses and the swell of gentle harmonies becomes too much to ignore.  The song also sets the right tone for a group of preachers beginning a long musical homily: “Keep watch, stay awake, you do not know the day.” The second track, “Our Help is in the Name of the Lord,” by Bolger and Teller, involves Fr. White’s banjo for the first time. The banjo, and everything else, only gets better on the album from here on out. The next track, an original from Fr. White, called “Bourbon, Bluegrass, & the Bible,” is one of the high points of the record. I’ve simply never heard anything like the groovy banjo, guitar, and bass combination, with Fr. White’s charming twang on top of it all. The lyrics are timely, including these lines from the chorus: “Death’s in the world, and it’s gone viral. Everybody’s talkin bout a new revival.” Boy, I sure hope so. And I hope this song is played at it.

Fr. Bolger’s “Give me a Drink” is a lovely composition based on the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, and it has an easy country swing sound that evokes the seminal late 80s / early 90s band Uncle Tupelo. Fr. White’s “Heaven or Tennessee” contains another tremendous banjo line, as well as folksy, but theologically rich lyrics. Fr. Teller sings,

Gonna trade my revolutions for revelation, trade my electric guitar for wise blood, trade my Yankee tailor for a Southern trailer, change my rolling dice of fate for the God of love.

“Jericho Blues,” another one by Fr. Bolger, is about the little taxman, Zacchaeus, from Luke 19. The guitars are particularly good in this full-band arrangement reminiscent of an early Ryan Adams song, with a little homage to the Beatles too.

“Chasing Money No More” is another one-of-a-kind from Fr. White, whose lyrics here emphasize the things that endure over the things that pass away. The chorus goes,

Everybody’s interested in Paradise. Til they find out it doesn’t always feel nice. And I ain’t gonna spend my time chasing money no more.

The piano establishes an old-fashioned Memphis rhythm and blues song, with a vocal that sounds like a mix of Lou Reed and Stuart Murdoch from Belle and Sebastian.

Two more songs written by Fr. White stand out as well. In “You Will Still Walk Down the Line,” which has an old-timey, Carter Family feel, again reinforces the freedom of simple living that we would expect from a friar. “Weight of Eternal Glory” again captures a cool, old-timey vibe with lyrics that convey the life-giving liberty of following the way of the cross. Fr. Bolger’s other songs are all excellent, as are the four cover songs, including Bolger’s minimalist arrangement of “Just As I Am” to end the record. It is a perfect final response to the pastoral invitation of the first track: “O Lamb of God, I come.”

With Living for the Other Side, the Hillbilly Thomists have a real opportunity to reach a wide audience. Catholics and other Christians who are into modern expressions of traditional Appalachian music will love this record. But the quality of these fourteen songs is so high that the album should by rights become a favorite of anyone paying attention to contemporary American music. If the secular, sometimes cynical music world discovers the work of these dedicated friars, we can only hope they will be cut to the heart with the truth of the Gospel.

That’s what good preaching always does.

Pretty cool, right?