As summer turned to fall, echoes of America’s favorite band of bluegrass playin’ priests rang throughout the Catskill Mountains. Three years after their first album reached Billboard’s Top Ten Bluegrass Albums, these Dominican friars gathered to sing, pray, and record a new album of American folk music.
Recorded in the Catskill Mountains
The scenic New York retreat definitively inspired their work. “It’d be hard to imagine a more beautiful setting to record an album,” says Fr. Peter Gautsch, OP. He continues, “We recorded in the Catskills, which are part of the Appalachian Mountains, where bluegrass and American folk music have deep roots, so it was an ideal place to make another little contribution of our own to that great musical tradition.” This link between the natural setting and the friars’ melodies is clear in the new album.
Taking a theological turn Fr. Joseph Hagan, OP, muses, “Some speculate that God created the world through a song, that his ‘let there be light’ in the book of Genesis was a great song of creative delight.” Fr. Joseph continues, “Well, before the beauty of His mountains, He puts that song in our hearts and on our tongue.” With open windows (capturing the sounds of birds and bugs!), the friars undertook the work of creation, as they plied themselves to singing of life’s greatest joys and sorrows.
Living a vibrant religious life throughout the recording process, the friars celebrated Mass together each day, chanted the liturgy of the hours, and enjoyed time together at meals. Fr. Justin Bolger, OP, believes that the schedule of daily prayer was key. He says, “It helped to keep us focused on giving glory to God.” For his part, Fr. Peter attests, “We enjoyed lots of great time together: during recording sessions, meals, downtime, you name it. The Dominican life is communal and fraternal to its core, and our time in the mountains was no different.”
Original music inspired by the Gospels
The friars’ new album, Living for the Other Side, consists mostly of original material. The Hillbilly Thomists’ first eponymous hit album features a number of traditionals like Leaning on the Everlasting Arms and What Would You Give for Your Soul. Living for the Other Side includes a few classics like Hard Times by Stephen Foster and Jacob’s Ladder, but in this project the friars are revealing their deft skill at composition. Fr. Justin says, “One new original song is Give Me A Drink. It’s a song inspired by the Samaritan-woman-at-the-well passage from the Gospel of John. Another new song is Heaven or Tennessee, a song about being homesick for both.” Listeners will surely appreciate one song born of the Coronavirus pandemic, Bourbon, Bluegrass and the Bible.
The name of the album, Living for the Other Side, is a line from the original song Chasing Money No More. Fr. Justine explains, “It’s a really fun song, which I think shows that the Christian life, being united with Christ, is an adventure. You can be truly alive in this life while living for the next.” Its cover image depicts Fr. Ignatius Smith, OP, a once renowned faculty member of The Catholic University of America preaching. Fr. Smith’s stately figure and the flag project the iconic Americana aims of the album.
The project might seem at odds with the friars’ vocation of preaching. On the contrary, each testifies the music enriches his life as a friar preacher. Fr. Joseph, the band’s spoon-clapping, washboard-scraping percussionist explains, “When God brings our souls to His heavenly laundry, we can fear the scrubbing will wear us down. But the washboard spirituality manifests how this soul-scrubbing can also set us a toe-tapping.” The album’s songs are ultimately about God’s love: how he guides us through the perils of this life to the next. Fr. Joseph continues, “These are songs to sing amid purification: renouncing the half loves of this world and striving ahead to the one love that satisfies.”
Fr. Justin even finds himself using a lyric or two in his preaching. He says, “I occasionally draw from songs to illustrate a point I’m trying to make.” Ultimately for Fr. Justin the music is about being convicted of God’s love, and thereby taking from it the strength to encourage others along the way. “The way to be most alive,” he explains, “is to have that greater view of life, a wise view, that our eternal home is in heaven.”
The album is planned for digital release in early 2021, offering one more good thing to look forward to as we leave 2020 behind. Hard copies will be available at select parishes by Christmas 2020. Keep up with the Hillbilly Thomists by following the Dominican friars on Facebook or Twitter.
Listen to friars discuss the album and get an exclusive preview on Godsplaining: