The Hillbilly Thomists: St. Thomas Aquinas meets bluegrass in best-selling album by Dominican friars
Apr 16, 2018
Bluegrass music may not be the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Dominicans, but for the 10 Dominican brothers and priests at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington who recently released their debut album, “The Hillbilly Thomists,” the two actually have a lot in common.
“The life of holiness is the happiest life. It is the good life,” said Brother Jonah Teller, who plays guitar on the album. “I was drawn, and I think a lot of men are drawn, by the joy the brothers exhibit here (at the Dominican House of Studies). There is a real hilaritas – a real happiness to be here, to be living this life, to be saving our souls, to be drawing closer to Jesus, and to do it with brothers.”
Likewise, while listening to bluegrass music, “There is a real happiness that is just drawn out of you,” he continued. “So I think that we’re geared to be happy, and bluegrass lets you be happy in a really expressive way.”
That happiness was tangible as six of the Hillbilly Thomists played music from their album to a standing-room-only crowd at the Catholic Information Center in Washington on April 11, which included middle aged men tapping their feet and young babies clapping their hands to the tunes. In between songs, and sometimes during, the musicians joked and laughed with each other as they created the proper setting for bluegrass music, which they said was usually played informally around a kitchen table.
One of the eight brothers featured in the new album is Brother Jonah Teller’s actual brother – Brother Simon Teller, who plays the fiddle. The two of them grew up together in Cincinnati, attending the parish where Dominicans in the Eastern Province go for their novitiate year of prayer and discernment before the profession of first vows. Their family sometimes invited the novitiate class over to their house, so the two brothers were used to seeing Dominicans.
Recently, as they were going through old family photos, Brother Simon found one of him as a 13-year-old, playing the fiddle alongside now-Father Thomas Joseph White, who had begun playing the bluegrass mandolin after his novice master had required that all novices take up a hobby.
Little did the 13-year-old know that he would later be wearing a similar white habit and once again play the fiddle alongside Father White, who is now an associate professor of systematic theology at the Dominican House of Studies.
Father White and Father Austin Litke founded the Hillbilly Thomists in the early 2000s. At first, it started out with them playing bluegrass together for fun, and it gradually expanded into them playing as an extension of talks that they gave. When they found other Dominican brothers who enjoyed playing Irish folk music, they started having larger music-playing sessions at the Dominican House of Studies, and over the years the group has expanded to include a wide array of Americana music.
The two founding members decided to name the band “The Hillbilly Thomists,” after a quote from the famous Catholic author, Flannery O’Connor, who once said “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas…I’m a hillbilly Thomist.”
The photo on the cover of the eponymous album is from 1926 and is a photo of friars in a Chicago priory. Brother Jonah said he chose that photo for the cover because it emphasizes that the album is not about any individual friars as musicians, but is about what the community has produced together. And indeed, the album was made possible because of what Brother Simon called a “providential gathering of people who all loved the same kind of music and could play it.”
Brother Justin Bolger was a professional touring musician and a sound engineer before entering the Dominican order. A couple of brothers, including Brother Joseph Hagan, had studied music at the University of Notre Dame. Brother Simon had been in a band in college, and spent a couple of summers as a street musician in Asheville, North Carolina.
“The different skills we brought fit well together,” said Brother Joseph, who plays the drums. “Obviously, we came together primarily for God…and that sort of shapes how we work. We are brothers first. We aren’t just people who have skills and [who] use each other to make an album.”
Unless they are practicing for a specific gig, the Hillbilly Thomists’ schedule of playing together is pretty fluid. Often, someone will just suggest to the group that they get together after night prayer and play for fun.
“It is a true extension of our fraternal life,” said Brother Jonah. “It really is what we like to do with each other.”
But the product of the brother’s fun pastime has received a response that none of them anticipated. It was in the top 10 of the bluegrass Billboard charts for about 10 weeks, at one point reaching the number three spot, and it also reached the top 20 of all albums on Amazon. People from around the world are listening to it, reviewing it, and often learning about St. Thomas Aquinas in the process, as they Google, “What is a Thomist?”
Ricky Skaggs, a famous bluegrass musician, even stopped by the Dominican House of Studies to visit the Hillbilly Thomists, and before playing bluegrass with them, joined them for prayer and lunch.
Father White said the technical work of creating the album was difficult, and while they suspected it might be moderately successful when they began the project, they never expected just how popular it would become.
“It was a joy to hear it come together,” he said.
The impetus for the album was as a fundraiser, since the album’s proceeds go to the Dominican House of Studies, but the album is also a subtle form of preaching, said Brother Simon. The Dominicans are also known as the Order of Preachers.
“The songs are spiritual and are about the Gospel truth – about Christ and grace and about very human things like death,” he said. “All the themes of bluegrass music capture the human experience like being on a pilgrimage, encountering death, or the strength you get from life as a Christian.”
Those themes are found in tracks like “What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul?,” inviting the listener to contemplate the reality of dying and meeting God; “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” reflecting the human experience of pilgrimage; and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” invoking an image of relying on God throughout the journey of spiritual life.
People have told the brothers that they are grateful for the album because they see it as something that they can send to their children who have fallen away from the Church or share with their non-Catholic friends, said Brother Simon.
“People who might be hesitant toward engaging in religion or Christianity, something like this kind of gets past their defenses and they are more willing to experience it as something that is cultural, but at the core of it is Christianity,” said Brother Simon. “It is a nice way to contribute to the New Evangelization that way.”
While people who are not familiar with theology may not understand the significance of the lyrics right away, the brothers said they were hoping it would be more of a “slow-cooking process.”
“It is more like planting and watering seeds,” said Brother Jonah. “And it is not us who can control it in the end. It is God, working through grace.”
Brother Jonah noted how he and others often know all the words to a song and sing it for years, before one day realizing what they mean. Likewise, the brothers pray the Psalms every day for years and years, but “you can say the same word over and over again and there is a new richness to it.”
“I think it is a good testament to how the Holy Spirit works, that His richness is never spent,” he said.
There is one original track on the album that was written by Brother Justin, titled “I’m a Dog” that includes the lyrics, “give me your fire, I’ll do your work, I’m just a dog for my Lord,” which has several layers of significance for the Dominican order, which was founded by St. Dominic in 1216.
In Latin, the order is called Domini-canes, or “the dogs of the Lord.” In addition, while she was pregnant, St. Dominic’s mom had a dream that she gave birth to a dog with a torch in its mouth that went around lighting the world on fire, which is why St. Dominic is sometimes portrayed with a little hound at his foot. Finally, in medieval times, the preacher was seen as a dog in relation to Christ as the Good Shepherd that uses its mouth to both fight off wolves and to keep sheep together.
The song also includes the words “I see potential for action,” which reflects the theme of “potency,” which the brothers said is one of the key philosophical principles of St. Thomas Aquinas.
“You see all of reality as potential and actualization of that potential,” said Brother Simon, explaining that as Dominicans, they are taught to see the potential in people. “Even if they are the worst sinner, they always are a son or daughter of God, and that gives them the potential to be actualized as a saint.”
While songs like these have deep and complex theological themes that the brothers understand, part of the beauty of the bluegrass is its simplicity, said Brother Joseph.
“Some of the deepest themes of theology that we can go on about making distinctions and giving you a whole paper about, some of the bluegrass songs put it very simply,” said Brother Joseph. “So for us, we hear it almost as a hyperlink, with the whole weight of truth behind it, but they present it so simply. The lyrics are very prayerful, if not just simply prayers.”
Both bluegrass music and the Catholic Church have a deep appreciation for tradition, said Brother Joseph. Bluegrass music is rooted in music that Irish, Scotch and English immigrants brought to the Appalachian region. Brother Joseph said he and the other brothers believe their dual roles as musicians and friars involve simply handing on those traditions passed down to them.
“Theology, especially in the way that we approach theology, is really about receiving, both from God and also from the 2,000 years of Catholic tradition,” he explained. “…And then with bluegrass music…most of it is receiving the tradition…We are not here to show how much skill we have, we are not here to be the most original thing ever, but we are receiving tradition and in re-presenting it, we will shape it a little bit here and there.”
Agreeing, Brother Jonah said, “We are just happy to be a part of the chain.”
Since they take vows of obedience, Brother Simon said it is difficult to talk about the future of the band, but added, “We’re all excited to see where the Lord takes it.”