The Hillbilly Thomists (Dominican Records, 2021)
First off, we have to deal with the band’s name. It comes from Flannery O’Connor, who kept Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica by her bedside and in 1955 quipped, “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas . . . I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” It’s the perfect handle for a band of Dominican friars who play bluegrass music deeply rooted in O’Connor’s beloved South.
There’s no denying the novelty of robed Dominicans with banjos, but the Thomists aren’t just a novelty act. Their first album of traditional covers went to number three on Billboard’s bluegrass chart. And they received a sort of apostolic blessing when Ricky Skaggs dropped by the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. to pick and pray with them.
On Living for the Other Side, nine of the 14 tracks are originals. One, “Bourbon, Bluegrass, & the Bible,” has a chorus proclaiming, “Death’s in the world and it’s gone viral./Everybody’s talking ’bout a new revival.” On “Chasing Money No More,” the lyrics are a straightforward statement of the deep satisfaction voluntary poverty brings in a capitalist world gone mad.
According to their website, “The Thomist . . . 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.” And here it is banjos, mandolins, guitars, and the occasional snare drum that become the visible (and audible) instruments of grace.
Obviously, this band is a side project for men who mostly do the typical Dominican work of preaching and teaching, but I hope that by next summer, their superior will send them on the road to work the bluegrass festival circuit. That would really be a new evangelization.
This article also appears in the December 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 12, page 38). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: The Hillbilly Thomists (2017), album cover