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“I think Aquinas might have enjoyed bluegrass”: An interview with The Hillbilly Thomists

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These talented friars of the Order of Preachers have reached Billboard's Top 10 bluegrass albums chart.

Earlier this month, friars of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., released a new album under the name The Hillbilly Thomists. The Dominican House of Studies has previously released four albums of sacred choral music, but this time their roster of talented instrumentalists have allowed them to branch out into the folk and bluegrass genres. The resulting work is a 12-song-album with your favorite folk tunes as well as a few original ones. The album is currently sitting at number 7 on Billboard’s Top 10 Bluegrass Albums.

As they explain on their website, they found their name in the writings of Flannery O’Connor:

In 1955, the southern author Flannery O’Connor said of herself, “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas. . .I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” She said that her fiction was concerned with the ways grace is at work among people who do not have access to the sacraments. The Thomist (one who follows the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas) believes that the invisible grace of God can be at work in visible things, just as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, in the person of Christ.

We had a chance to interview three of the band’s members: Br. Jonah Teller (guitar, vocals); Br. Justin Bolger (guitar, piano, accordion, bass, vocals); and Br. Joseph Hagan (drums, washboard, bodhrán) and they each offered insightful answers.

For the benefit of those of our readers who are unfamiliar with Thomism, could you describe the effect that studying the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas has had on your life, beyond your Dominican vocation?

Br. Jonah Teller, O.P. – St. Thomas approaches difficult questions with serenity. I’ve found him to be both a masterful teacher and a holy model for how to think theologically.

Br. Justin Bolger, O.P. – Aquinas has the whole of life in view. He is interested in seeing how all things are ordered providentially by God. But he always does so in such a way that the mystery and transcendence of God is preserved and revered. Not only that, he really loved God. So Aquinas inspires not just study but the love of God. I think Aquinas also challenges one to be honest with oneself and with others — most of all with God.

Br. Joseph Hagan, O.P. – St. Thomas presents the moral life in a way that surprises many contemporary Catholics. We tend to think about the Church’s teaching in terms of following rules and avoiding sins. In contrast, St. Thomas preserves the tradition that morality is primarily about happiness. Instead of merely following rules and avoiding sins, we seek happiness through growing in virtues (e.g., faith, hope, and love). And undergirding all of this is grace, so that attaining happiness is not primarily a matter of trying harder, but rather of being more receptive to the gifts of God.

Studying St. Thomas also instills a confidence in truth. With this confidence, one can see the harmony between faith and reason. One can even engage with those who oppose the Catholic faith with confidence that truth cannot contradict truth.

Can you share some specific way that Aquinas has affected the way you live, day-to-day?

JT – Well, he certainly affects the classes that I take each day! His writings form much of the foundation of what we focus on here at the Dominican House of Studies.

JB – I think Aquinas’s teachings help me trust in God. God is guiding all things. Nothing is a challenge to God because he made everything. But God is also not removed from his creation. He is present to it in an intimate way, especially in us through his grace. This is a great comfort.

How did you come up with the concept of The HillBilly Thomists? Why did you choose the lively bluegrass genre?

JT – The band was formed some years ago by Fr. Austin Litke and Fr. Thomas Joseph White. As for the rest of us, we all came to the Order with our individual love for music, and we naturally took to spending time playing music together, usually at private celebrations and special occasions here at the priory. Br. Justin had spent some years as a recording and touring musician prior to becoming a Dominican, so he already had the skills necessary for recording and producing an album. His talent is what really permitted us to take on a project like this album.

As for bluegrass, we should make a distinction. While a few songs on the album could be said to be bluegrass, the album as a whole would fall more into the genre of folk or traditional Americana. Maybe that’s being picky, but we don’t want to enrage any bluegrass purists out there who might think we’re trying to exploit the wonderful form of bluegrass! Pedantic musical distinctions aside, we all love the joy and camaraderie that this sort of music brings about. That, more than anything, is why we chose this style. We’re playing the songs we like to hear.

JB – It all happened quite naturally. There were a handful of brothers in the house interested in traditional folk, bluegrass, and singer/songwriter music. We enjoy playing and singing with each other and eventually we worked up enough songs where we had a good repertoire. We also have some recording experience and had been recording schola albums of sacred music as fundraisers. We thought we would try something different this time.

JH – The Hillbilly Thomists came about through combination of Fr. Thomas Joseph White and Fr. Austin Litke. I’m not sure of all the details there. The group has evolved with a second wave of musicians. In this second wave, we started simply by playing music together for fun. Then, we started playing for in-house celebrations. Then, we started playing at other events and even on the streets of DC. And finally, we thought about recording an album.

As far as genre goes, it’s a mix. There’s a sense of tradition, stemming from the Irish, Scots, and early Americana. There’s also a spiritual richness in these songs, especially drawing upon Scripture. Plus, they’re fun to play.

Are there any songwriters among you? Were there any original songs written for the album?

JH – A few of us can compose. Br. Justin wrote a song on the album, “I’m a Dog.” Others have written songs previously. And others have written sacred music for the liturgy.

As students, you all probably have interests and goals besides music. Will The Hillbilly Thomists survive graduation? What are the plans for its future?

JT – We don’t intend for this to be our career. We’re here to be Dominican friars. That being said, I’m sure that we’ll continue to play together as life allows.

JB – Time will tell! I’m sure at least some of us will still together from time to time to play.

JH – The future is in God’s hands. We trust His providence.

After experiencing a vision, Aquinas famously said that everything that he’d written seemed like straw compared to those things which had been revealed. Is there a song you feel conveys that sense of awestruck humility

JT – I think that the words of “What Wondrous Love Is This” convey a similar sense of awe.

JB – I like all kinds of music and am often humbled by great songs I hear. I’m listening right now to Bach’s Goldberg Variations played by Rosalyn Tureck. That makes me feel like everything I’ve ever played is straw.

JH – After seeing a vision, St. Thomas said his work seemed like straw. Also, there is the famous exchange between Christ and St. Thomas: Christ offers to reward the saint for his labors, asking him what he desires, and St. Thomas replies quite simply: “Nothing but You, my Lord, nothing but You.”

The last song, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” captures some of this spirituality of St. Thomas. It’s not a matter of what we can accomplish, but simply of walking closer to Jesus.

Do you think Thomas Aquinas would have enjoyed bluegrass?

JT – Not really! But I’m sure that after making some shrewd distinctions, he’d pinpoint something good about it.

JB – Yes, and I think he would have played the tub bass.

JH – St. Thomas was a lyricist himself, writing some of the great Eucharistic hymns (e.g., “Adoro Te Devote” and “Pange Lingua”). It seems likely that he might enjoy the lyrics and rhythm of bluegrass. I wouldn’t be surprised if he would have even penned a few songs himself.

Pick up your copy of The Hillbilly Thomists here.

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