When a group of Dominican friars banded together over a common love for bluegrass and folk music, one of its founding members, Father Austin Litke, came up with a name that was impossible to top: “The Hillbilly Thomists.”
The phrase comes from Flannery O’Connor, a Southern writer with a lasting love for Thomas Aquinas. O’Connor would read the Dominican saint’s Summa theologiae every night before bed, and once wrote that while many readers mistakenly took her for a “hillbilly nihilist,” she was really a “hillbilly Thomist.”
“It seemed like the right name for a Dominican bluegrass band composed of students of Thomas Aquinas,” admits Father Thomas Joseph White, the other founding member of the group (and author of The Light of Christ). For White, the name seems doubly fitting: O’Connor’s letters are what piqued his initial interest in Catholicism before he converted to the faith during college.
Formed within the Province of St. Joseph (the Northeast division of the Order of Preachers, extending from New England to Virginia to Ohio), The Hillbilly Thomists are Fr. Litke (mandolin, guitar, vocals), Fr. White (banjo, dulcimer, vocals), and a new generation of no less than eight brothers: Br. Justin Bolger (guitar, piano, accordion, bass, vocals); Br. Simon Teller (fiddle, vocals); Br. Peter Gautsch (mandolin, piano, guitar, vocals); Br. Jonah Teller (guitar, vocals); Br. Joseph Hagan (drums, washboard, bodhrán); Br. Timothy Danaher (vocals); Br. Brad Elliott (drums); and Br. Constantius Sanders (vocals).
With a merry band of ten men behind it, you might expect a chaotic or clumsy experience from their self-titled debut album. Instead, The Hillbilly Thomists (available on CD Baby, Amazon, and iTunes) unfolds like a genius soundtrack to a Coen Brothers’ movie that never was. (And indeed, Coen fans will probably recognize the first track, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” from True Grit, and the second, “Angel Band,” from O Brother Where Art Thou?) It’s anything but clumsy or gimmicky; in fact, it’s exquisite.
The story of how a group of Dominican friars came to be a first-class bluegrass band is really a story of how a group of young men came to be Dominicans. Each brother, of course, entered the Dominican House of Studies through a slightly different door. Br. Simon and Br. Jonah—brothers by blood as well as by the Order—grew up in a Dominican parish in Ohio, so the influence was always there. (“Since the only priests I knew were Dominicans,” Br. Simon explains, “wanting to ‘be a priest’ really meant wanting to ‘be a Dominican.’”) For Br. Peter and Br. Timothy, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Each met some friars during their later college years, right around the time they started thinking seriously about religious life.
As for what it was inside the house that attracted them, that almost always came down to a combination of the same three things: fraternal life, an emphasis on study and veritas (truth), and the joyful example of individual friars. For Br. Simon, it was all three. “I was especially drawn to the communal life of the friars: living together as brothers, praying together, eating together, preaching together. The Dominican emphasis on study as a crucial part of our spiritual life was also appealing. But I was most drawn to the order by the happy witness of the friars. All the friars I met were full of joy, happy to give their lives in service of the Lord.”
Br. Jonah describes a typical week as revolving around individual and communal prayer (which “gives the day its frame”), “an intense amount of study,” and supplemental ministry assignments. Music, as it turns out, plays a key role throughout. “We chant the psalms,” Br. Justin adds. “We sing certain texts of the Mass. Music helps energize and enliven our prayer.” In fact, the Province has recorded no less than four albums of sacred music.
But they also make time for sports, exercise, and just hanging out together—which is where others forms of music started to emerge. “Music is both playful and solemn,” Fr. White explains. “It gives expression to poetic ideas, and emotions. It can make ordinary life special but also has its place in the sacred liturgy. Our community has produced a number of albums of sacred music but music is also a part of our religious life in other venues, during fraternal community gatherings, or just for fun.”
As Fr. Litke and Fr. White continued to play music together, more and more like-minded brothers started to join in. Br. Justin (described by another as “the heart of the band and the album”) had professional experience as a musician prior to entering the Order; others studied music in college; and some had been in bands and played music for fun.
At first, that was what The Hillbilly Thomists were all about: just having fun with music. “For a while, brothers would play traditional Irish music on weekly basis,” Br. Joseph recalls. “This was merely for recreation.” But then, they started to play during house events, and even took their songs to the streets of D.C. as a method of evangelization. “All the while, our repertoire expanded. We pushed more to American bluegrass and folk, finding the songs to be rich with Scripture.”
Eventually, they realized the time was right for an album, one that would not only help fund their religious formation but also reach the wider culture. “There are so many great old spirituals and hymns in this traditional genre,” Br. Justin explains. “Many actually come from the Protestant tradition. So in one way, this reveals what we have in common with our Protestant brothers and sisters.” But many of those songs, he adds, also played an important role in shaping American culture. “In a certain sense they come from our shared history.”
Aside from a Chieftains-like instrumental, “St. Anne’s Real”—a nod to the band’s start in Irish music—the album wades through two currents of American music, the first being the spiritual bluegrass and folk music of Appalachia. After the toe-tapping exuberance of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and the swaying harmonies of “Angel Band” comes “What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul?”, a tune written by F.J. Berry and recorded by the Monroe Brothers in 1936. The Thomists’ approach to this song feels as elemental and honest as an Alan Lomax field recording, but with all the freshness and vitality of its twenty-first century creators. The brothers harmonize, warble, and strum their way through words of warning rooted in Matthew 16:26:
Brother afar from the Savior today
Risking your soul for the things that decay
Oh, if today God should call you away
What would you give in exchange for your soul?
The album has several covers of these old, earthy songs, from the buoyant and brilliant “To Canaan’s Land” (once sung by Hank Williams) to the harmonious “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” which also inspired a mesmerizing video premiere filmed at the House of Studies:
But there’s a second current that also runs through much of the album, and it’s gospel music. The brothers offer a rich, soulful presentation of “Amazing Grace” (with an original arrangement by Br. Justin), a breezy, piano-guided rendition of “Steal Away,” and a cover of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” a nineteenth-century spiritual often played during “jazz funerals” in New Orleans.
At the center of this tapestry of traditional American music is “I’m a Dog,” an original composition by Br. Justin that fits right in. It’s an easygoing, earnest song about loving and serving God, and revolves around the Dominican image of the “Hound of the Lord”:
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
I’m just a dog for my Lord
I hear a siren sounding
Through streets and over mountains
So hold out your torch
And spread some fire all around you
When I found Him
Whom my heart loved
I took hold of Him
Would not let Him go
While The Hillbilly Thomists will have obvious appeal for people of faith and fans of roots music, there is also something universally human about these songs. “Sacred music, when it’s beautiful, can give us a glimpse into the divine mystery that words can’t quite access,” Br. Simon explains. “Folk music does something similar. It takes us on a journey into the depths of the human heart. It gives us a window into the joys, sorrows, hopes, and sufferings of the human experience.” And why wouldn’t it? Christianity, Fr. White adds, “embraces all that is human, and teaches us to offer this up to God with joy.” The album reveals the humanism comfortably nested in Christianity as much as it reveals the mere Christianity comfortably nested in Catholicism.
But on a less abstract level, the album sends the message that priests and brothers are human beings—ordinary people who, as Fr. White explains, “love and appreciate beauty and play.” So when it came time to pick an album cover, they went with an old black and white photograph from the Province archives. Taken in Illinois in 1926, it’s an image that designer Br. Paul Clarke says captures an organic part of their “life and tradition.” And the photograph shows—what else—a group of hillbilly Thomists hanging out and playing music together.