Hillbilly Thomists preach from the Banjo

hillbilly thomasts

Among the many incongruities of life, there are few more odd and charming as the Hillbilly Thomists.

Perhaps you know a bluegrass band or two, but have you ever heard of one composed of Dominican friars and priests?

What else could possibly be so odd, yet so perfect, as a group of guitar and banjo-wielding mendicants taking up the time-tested tradition of Southern music?

The Hillbilly Thomists first formed in the Dominican House of Studies, born of the simple desire to play music as a visible expression of God’s invisible grace.

They view as a model of their project Flannery O’Connor, from whose writings they take their name and numerous references in their songs.

The Hillbilly Thomists made their public debut in 2017 with their eponymous first album, then followed up their success in 2021 with Living for the Other Side.

With a combination of their own songs and covers of old Southern classics, both albums displayed healthy respect for past tradition and an eagerness for fresh art and new songs.

On July 7, 2022, the Hillbilly Thomists made their next breakthrough with their album Holy Ghost Power.

Unlike their previous forays into the world of music, this new collection features a veritable treasury of homespun, expertly crafted, and distinctly Catholic bluegrass.

Holy Ghost Power takes the listener on a panoramic trip through Southern spirituality infused with Catholic sensibility.

From the drawling, Flannery O’Connor-brimming title track to the thoughtful and moving “Veronica,” and then right back to energetic jams like “Way Down in New Orleans,” the album is nothing short of a holistic, but perhaps whiplashing, the rollercoaster experience of Catholic bluegrass.

One could do manifold things with the spiritual and emotional depth and breadth of Holy Ghost Power, but in particular I’d like to focus on how that strength of variety and the sheer wonder of a band such as the Hillbilly Thomists exemplifies the elegance of Dominican spirituality.

St Dominic’s spirituality holds a unique place among others as a combination of the active and contemplative life.

He emphasised in his life and works that one could be a zealous apostle and a high mystic simultaneously.

His solution to the classic dilemma of Martha and Mary: Why not be both? Contemplative prayer and study were the wellsprings of active preaching.

Holy Ghost Power’s artistic range presents the same sort of difficulty that St Dominic sought to overcome in founding the Order of Preachers.

Sometimes playful and catchy like “The Power and the Glory,” sometimes quiet and modest like “Love is Patient,” it can be difficult to see the album’s artistic unity.

Dominican spirituality, the attempt to reconcile and fuse the best of both worlds, is the key to comprehending how it all fits together in Holy Ghost Power.

The peaks and valleys aren’t sloppy writing and organisation, but an intentional attempt to bring apparent opposites into one chorus. Disparate tones find their union through the focal point of the distinctly Dominican project to bring distinct elements into one whole.

The spiritual artistry of Holy Ghost Power is ultimately akin to the delightful fact of the band’s very existence—who could have expected opposites to be joined in such a way? After all, Dominicans aren’t professional musicians, but scholars and preachers; and if one expected any music from them, bluegrass would hardly be their guess.

Nevertheless, The Hillbilly Thomists have shown once again in Holy Ghost Power the strength of Dominican and Catholic spirituality to adapt to any culture and mood, and fashion them into a symphony of God’s praise.

  • Peter Watkins writes in The Torch that takes seriously the values to which Boston College is committed as a Catholic university. The Torch desires an active and healthy exchange of ideas. Moreover, its chief end is to be a tool for the new evangelization.
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