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Hillbilly Thomists Share What’s at the Heart of Their Music

Read this inteview between this author and the Hillbilly Thomists, a bluegrass band made up of Dominican priests.

Music captivates us because it has a sort of magic. It begins with notes and scales, but has a depth that goes beyond beat and melody. Through the blend of lyrics and expression, we feel emotions we might not be able to name — we’re pushed into a sensorial experience might not be able to explain.

Dare we say, music is food for the soul?

Well, according to the Hillbilly Thomists, a bluegrass band composed of Dominican priests, the answer is a resounding yes. The bluegrass tradition is rooted in English, Scottish, and Irish ballads, then blended with traditional African-American blues and jazz. And though the genre comes from the largely Protestant Appalachia, the Hillbilly Thomists’ yearning, soulful sound takes a fresh approach that both honors the Catholic culture they represent, while respectfully evolving the Americana folksy sound from whence they came. 

 

I was able to chat with two of the band members, Father Jonah Teller, OP, and Father Austin Dominic Litke, OP. We spoke about the history of the genre and how music like this could offer a way to connect with others in a deeply divided country. 

So, first things. How’d y’all find each other?

Father Austin: Moving away from Kentucky, it’s funny how I found myself reappropriating my roots, getting into the tradition, and defending my background. As friars, we were invited to places — and a few of us would force music upon the group. They eventually asked for a name, and we came up with Hillbilly Thomists, inspired by the southern Catholic novelist, Flannery O’Connor, known for her southern Gothic style.

Father Jonah: Separate from Father Austin’s group, there were a bunch of us who enjoyed playing music together around the same time. It all started with Irish ballads, and went on into an organic development, which started to sound a lot like bluegrass (my brother, Brother Simon, and I grew up just north of Kentucky, in Cincinnati). But really — we were just playing songs we liked to sing, which followed that path grounded in traditional, American folk music. Then, one day, we started playing with Father Austin’s group and we merged forces. We shamelessly took their name, and we all became the Hillbilly Thomists.

Let’s talk about your recording style, and how that relates to the genre of this music.  

Father Austin: Folk music doesn’t have the production value that rock or pop does. Once Elvis and the Beatles came along, there was a lot of post-production. There were a lot of takes made to find perfection in recording. But if you listen to early recordings of this genre, it sounds like it’s done in one take, which is what we tried to do. There wasn’t a huge amount of splicing things together. It’s one of the things we enjoyed the most … that feel comes across when recording. 

Does it make it feel more real? 

Father Jonah: Yeah, you can’t replicate the energy you make by playing music with someone else. Plus, during our days of recording out in the Catskills, we still had our times of prayer, to celebrate Mass, and work in the morning and evening songs. This balance of life of prayer and work and the work of the album … it all integrated really well. 

That kind of integration can be hard to find today — our culture has a lot of segmentation. We like to separate different parts of our lives and not let them touch. Can you speak a little about how bluegrass and its history is integrated into the culture of middle America — and how this may or may not relate to your album? 

Father Jonah: Good question. A lot of young people are seeking an identity and a group — separately. On their own, they’re trying to carve out authenticity and identity. What they’re looking for is culture. 

Culture comes from the Latin word cultus meaning, “care, cultivation, worship.” So, for centuries, the worship of God, or a divinity, is the heart of a culture, and this worship determined what life was like in that culture. It centered the society. 

But if you remove the heart of the worship of God, you remove the relationship of creature and creator, and so you have this vacuum people are trying to fill. They might have gone to (a big city to) play music — but what is the reason? The bakers might like the baking scene, but what’s the celebration? What is the meaning of the holidays? 

In so many ways, people today are trying to hold onto the fringe elements of what culture is about. They see elements that are true and good, but they don’t have the unifying heart and the relationship with the creator.

For those of us who have been blessed with the faith, the celebrations make sense, the music makes sense, the food makes sense — there’s an integration. And this integration is alive in the tradition of bluegrass, and the land it came from. 

There’s a real crisis in our nation right now. Americana, so to speak, is divided. How does your album address this? How can music like this help heal our nation? 

Father Austin: Traditional forms of music have a more meditative way of dealing with existential parts of life. Pop music is more obviously political — starting with the ‘60s, and now with Taylor Swift. With folk music, it’s the opposite — it focuses on more perennial issues without the political agenda. It’s a very different approach. Plus, there’s something about the format of how bluegrass comes together in jam sessions. In the old days, music was your entertainment. People didn’t have TV, so they played instruments.

Father Jonah: The song “Bourbon Bluegrass and the Bible” written by Father Thomas Joseph, OP, addresses this divided country as well. It goes: People on the left, people on the right … they don’t need beer to get into a fight. 

He’s alluding to the fact that we’re in a very combative mindset in the country. A part of this is a result of technology. When you’re physically separated, it’s much easier to disagree and hate someone when you only see on a screen. But this style of music is naturally inclined to confront conflict in a particularly honest way — be it the mundane difficulties of life, the conflict between people, the questions and doubts about God, losing a job, fear of death, injury. It touches on things most fundamental.

Back to the fundamentals — sounds like what we need right now. Does this have anything to do with your album title, “Living for the Other Side”?

Father Austin: As Dominican Friars, our life is pointed beyond this life and beyond this world. There’s certain forms of music and certain places beyond (that) point people’s minds outside of this life. For as important as this life is, its importance is beyond that. So, for me, this hobby has that element built in as well. It’s for something beyond myself.

This type of music seems to blend seamlessly with being a Dominican — but it’s definitely not church music. Can we talk about this?

Father Jonah: Yeah — so, thematically, bluegrass considers faith, dealing with the Lord, with sin and forgiveness, and existential questions — which, as Dominican Friars, we think about regularly. But it’s not liturgical. This isn’t something we’d ever play at church.

Father Austin: No. Bluegrass is very much a pre-rock-n-roll phenomenon. Inspired by the early blues of the delta South, many early bluegrass musicians, like Bill Monroe, have an evangelical background. Many old gospel hymns are done in the bluegrass medium. So Christianity is a rather direct influence, and hymns are part of the fabric of the south. 

So, in a way, bluegrass was inspired through a Protestant tradition. How is your Catholic approach different? 

Father Austin: For many Protestants in this era, music would have been their way of worshipping. But there’s a different take if you’re Catholic. For us, liturgical music is not the same as popular music. There’s a real distinction. Evangelicals could play a lot of this music at a service, and it would be fine. But we would never play this for Mass… because the church has its own liturgical music. A Catholic sensibility has different purposes for music. 

Let’s take the old Lutheran or Anglican culture for a Southerner. In the home, the family would read the Bible and sing the hymns together. It would be more than worship — it would also be entertainment as you harmonize different parts. It was a popular faith formation conducted in the home. It was very integrated. So in a sense that’s what we’re trying to tap into. There’s an Americana roots background — and you hear it, but it’s shot through with implicit and explicit parts of the interior. 

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