UBLISHED in 1952, Wise Blood is a Southern Gothic novel by Catholic author Flannery O’Connor. Many early critics interpreted the work as a tale of despair and darkness. In a 1955 response to one letter writer, O’Connor objected: “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas I would like to create the impression . . . that I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” 1
Thus was born the name of a banjo-bearing band of bluegrass-loving brothers.
The Hillbilly Thomists are a group of Dominicans friars (ten brothers, of whom two are priests) belonging to the Province of St. Joseph and living at their Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. It is also the title of the group’s CD released last month (available here).
The cover art (see below) features a historic photograph from the Dominican archives that depicts thirteen friars from the early 20th century, each wielding a banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, or clarinet. Seen in this light, The Hillbilly Thomists are, perhaps, more traditional than they first seem.
So, which members of the Order of Preachers make up this unusual bluegrass band? The notes accompanying the CD identify the following members of the group:
Fr. Austin Litke, OP — Mandolin, guitar, & vocals
Fr. Thomas White, OP — Banjo, dulcimer, & vocals
Br. Justin Bolger, OP — Guitar, piano, accordion, bass, & vocals
Br. Constantius Sanders, OP — Vocals
Br. Timothy Danaher, OP — Vocals
Br. Brad Elliott, OP — Drums
Br. Peter Gautsch, OP — Mandolin, piano, guitar, & vocals
Br. Joseph Hagan, OP — Drums, washboard, & bodhrán
Br. Jonah Teller, OP — Guitar & vocals
and Br. Simon Teller, OP — Fiddle & vocals
In all, the album presents just over 40 minutes of musical delight. Only one of the tracks is an original song: “I’m a Dog,” written by Br. Justin, formerly a professional songwriter. Featuring a tuneful melody and creative lyrics, the song plays on the Dominican notion of the “hound of the Lord” (rooted in the similarity between the Latin words Dominicanus and Domini canis, which means “dog/hound of the Lord”).
Other standout tracks include the brothers’ a capella version of Amazing Grace, their soulful rendition of the spiritual Steal Away, and their animated finger-picking during the Scotch-Irish instrumental Saint Anne’s Reel.
ECEPTION has been unequivocally positive. The early popularity of the album is not based solely on its catching title or the novelty of Dominicans doing bluegrass.
The recording broke into the top 10 bluegrass albums on Billboard and reached the status of #1 selling folk album on Amazon for a time. One can also find glowing reviews on the pages of America, First Things, and Word on Fire.
Having listened to the album several times now, I am happy to echo the wide praise these friars have garnered since the release date (12 December 2017). Only occasionally lacking in polish, the album is characterized by truly excellent musicianship and impressive missionary zeal. The quality of the sound may cause listeners to forget that this music is made by men whose primary work is prayer and preaching, not riffing and recording.
Check out this music video featuring one of the album’s tracks, Poor Wayfaring Stranger:
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: MacMillan, 1988), 81.