From the earliest days of its history, Gospel music has been an integral part of bluegrass. Not only have hymns and spiritual stories been the subject of songs, but the very harmony singing style employed also has its roots in the church.
But only quite rarely do we get the music directly from men of the cloth. Until now, that is.
The Hillbilly Thomists have just released their debut album, a self-titled project of Gospel favorites played bluegrass style. All of its members are housed in the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, an educational facility for the Dominican Order. The band was founded by Fr. Austin Litke (mandolin and guitar) and Fr. Thomas Joseph White (banjo), and soon grew to include several students and residents at the Priory. Br. Justin Bolger on guitar and bass, Br. Simon Teller on fiddle, Br. Peter Gautsch on guitar and mandolin, Br. Jonah Teller on guitar, Br. Joseph Hagan on percussion, and Br. Brad Elliott on drums have been a part of the group, along with vocalists Br. Timothy Danaher and Br. Constantius Sanders. In truth, almost all of the members sing.
The Dominicans are an order of priests started by a 13th century monk known as Dominic de Guzman, or more commonly these days, simply St. Dominic. They are known for their intense study of Scripture and theology, and were persistent critics of various heresies that developed in Europe during the middle ages. They are recognized today for their deep knowledge, charity, and a devotion to praying the Rosary. Over the years the order has produced a number of Catholic saints.
Brothers at the Priory in DC had previously recorded a number of albums of sacred music, but this is their first foray into traditional folk music. The Hillbilly Thomsists have become quite popular in the region, performing for church events and parties, and they are quite a sight to see decked out in their long, white robes with banjos and mandolins.
The band took their name from a quote by Flannery O’Connor, a well-known Catholic writer from the southern US in the 20th century. She used the phrase to describe herself after the publication of her first novel, Wise Blood. Her actual line was, “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas. . . I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” A Thomist being one who studies the writings and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Their album contains their arrangements of 12 familiar numbers that fit their mission, like Leaning On The Everlasting Arms, What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul, and What Wondrous Love Is This, along with a sprightly version of the old fiddle tune, St. Anne’s Reel. It is available from most of the popular online sites, like Amazon, iTunes, and CD Baby.
Here are a couple of videos of The Hillbilly Thomsists to give a flavor of their music, which has a flavor of folk as well as bluegrass music.
First up is Wayfaring Stranger…
…followed by a sample of Leaning On The Everlasting Arms accompanied by numerous photos of the band.
Well done, brothers! Given the tremendous demands on their time in prayer and devotions, it is remarkable that these men find time for music.
What a tribute to the power of bluegrass!