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Friars with fiddle tunes


WORLD Radio - Friars with fiddle tunes

The Hillbilly Thomists are Dominican friars making bluegrass gospel music

Wikimedia Commons/Photo by Joseph Brent

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: A musical band with a heavenly calling.

When we think of bluegrass music we might recall the traditional sounds of Bill Monroe or Doc Watson or the more contemporary sound of musicians like Allison Krauss.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Right but when you think about all that, you might not think about Dominican friars.

WORLD reviewer Steve West says one group of holy men is stretching the genre in ways worth tuning in to.


STEVE WEST, REPORTER: Father Jonah told me that he knew it was God’s grace when he stood with others in the band on the storied Grand Ole Opry stage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. It’s a place where so many historic performances by the likes of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline occurred.

HILLBILLY THOMISTS: Oh, man, it was awesome. It was so much fun. We just loaded up in a pretty smelly 15-passenger Chevy--not the greatest rental but it got the job done. I think the biggest show we played was at the Grand Ole Opry, which was just, I mean, what a pinnacle. What an incredible experience. I still can't believe we got to do that.


Father Jonah is just one of eight men in a band called the Hillbilly Thomists. They’re part of a Catholic Order of Preachers—also called Dominicans—which originated in medieval France with a Spanish priest, Saint Dominic. Mostly they do what Dominican friars are called to do: pray, study, write, teach, and preach. But, as Father Justin explains, they’ve also embraced music as part of their call.

HILLBILLY THOMISTS: So when St. Dominic founded us about 800 years ago, he was inspired to found an order that would study the truth. Love the source of truth, who is God and our Lord Jesus. We write a lot of our own music, but we also like to play traditional tunes, and kind of reveal, yeah, the gospel and certain truths through this music.


The songs the band plays are firmly in the bluegrass gospel genre, rooted in the stuff of life–things like false promises, lost hope, and unfulfilled dreams–familiar topics for country or bluegrass songs. And yet wherever the songs begin, they resolve in hope, in the promise of the Gospel.

That’s as it should be, says Father Jonah.

HILLBILLY THOMISTS: I think that the songs in large part are about grace, are about God’s taking initiative in your life with his love, which is transformative. Drawing you closer to him, breaking your life open, so that his light can pour in.


On the band’s website, there’s a quote from the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, in which she calls herself, “ a hillbilly Thomist.” I asked Father Justin what O’Connor was talking about and why the band adopted her term.

HILLBILLY THOMISTS: She wanted to explore the ways that grace will kind of fall sometimes into someone's life violently, or in a way that disrupts. We Dominicans are like writer O'Connor, students of St. Thomas Aquinas. And then this music that we're playing is hillbilly music. Both bluegrass gospel. And so I thought it'd be fun and appropriate to call ourselves the Hillbilly Thomists.


That’s the title track from the band’s latest album, Holy Ghost Power, which came out last summer. The vocals on some songs may be too rough-hewn for some listeners, but that earthiness is part of their appeal. Father Jonah said they record much of their music live, with little overdubbing, and while they enjoy jamming musically, their favorite part is harmonizing together.

HILLBILLY THOMISTS: So for us as friars, there are four or five times a day that we're all coming together in the chapel and singing hymns together and chanting Psalms. So a large part of your life is just sorta standing next to your brothers and singing. So we've developed a real ease in just kind of knowing the voice next to you and singing with it and blending with it.


Yet the brothers explained that they weren’t so holy that they never had a disagreement.

HILLBILLY THOMISTS: Well, I'm always right. So, no disagreements. Yeah, I am too. We live lives of mutual mercy in this religious life. It's like you've entered into this life together as friars, as brothers, seeking God together. And that means that you have to seek God together, which means there's a certain patience you need to have with each other, and an understanding that, like, your brother is here with a disposition of mercy towards you.


The brothers say they will be recording again this summer. And that’s good news for music lovers who also love the Gospel.

HILLBILLY THOMISTS: So that's kind of what we're about as Dominicans: preaching the truth, the truth of the gospel, the saving truth of the gospel. We're bound to each other in fraternity. And, and like Father Jonah said, in mercy. So in one sense, the stakes are high. Like you're saying, we want this to sound good. We really love doing it. But then we also keep in mind the bigger picture.


I’m Steve West.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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