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The roots of roots music: The Hillbilly Thomists before they were a band

J-P Mauro - published on 08/28/22

Fans of the Hillbilly Thomists can spot several members of the current band, as well as Aleteia's own English edition editor, Fr. Patrick Mary Briscoe, OP.

The Hillbilly Thomists recently released their third studio album,Holy Ghost Power, which peaked at #5 on Billboard’s bluegrass charts. While the new record is phenomenal, today we’re looking back to the time when the Hillbilly Thomists were just a rag-tag group of musicians from the Order of Preachers whose only stage was in a quiet room of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.

In the beginning of the above recording, taken in 2014, one of the friars explains that the impromptu music session was held to welcome a pair of Dominican friars who were visiting from Ireland. To make their guests feel at home, the white-clad players gathered in a circle to sing Irish tunes. 

The song featured in the recording is “Will Ye Go, Lassie,” an Scottish/Irish folk song that is also known as “Wild Mountain Thyme” or sometimes “Purple Heather.” The tune was originally written by Scottish composer Robert Archibald Smith, with lyrics from the Scottish poet Robert Tannahill. The popular version performed in the video, however, was an adaptation of Smith’s tune by Irish musician Francis McPeake. 

The Dominicans gave the old Celtic song a great treatment, even going so far as to add some harmonies to the chorus. They start a little slow, but by the first chorus they’ve hit their stride and from there they sound as good as any Dublin band. 

The video is particularly fun to watch because fans of the Hillbilly Thomists can spot their members, with the three instrumentalists as the most obvious. While they may not have been quite as polished in 2014 as they are in 2022, the Hillbilly Thomists show they already had the musical skills needed to excel in their craft. As they say at The Catholic University of America’s Rome School of music, just across the street from the Dominican House of Studies: “Skills for life!”

Aleteia readers may also be able to recognize our own Father Patrick Mary Briscoe, OP, recently named editor of Our Sunday Visitor, singing two seats to the right of the man dressed in black. Fr. Patrick looks like he especially enjoyed the Irish folk song, as he’s sporting a huge grin by the end. 

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