From the rapid pace of Capitol Hill, eight friars’ sensitive harmonies and lovely acoustic instrumentals present a sophisticated knowledge of faith.
The Hillbilly Thomists rose to the top ten bluegrass albums of 2017, according to Billboard, along with Alison Krauss’ “Windy City,” and Steve Martin’s “The Long-Awaited Album.” This group of eight friars and two priests strummed up a Southern collection featuring classics such as “Amazing Grace,” “Angel Band,” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”
The musical journey of the Dominican brothers from Washington, D.C., started with playing Irish songs for fun. From the House of Studies on Catholic University of America’s campus, the “deserving poor boys” (a name alluding to their vows of poverty) took their preaching vocation to a new platform: the recording studio.
The album is not only an expression of their personal commitment to the religiosity, but a broader celebration of the joyfully raucous life of the Christian: messy, earthy, hard, sometimes dissonant, but hopeful of the life to come.
“I’m a Dog” tells the story of the founder of the order, St. Dominic. Dominic described himself as a dog for God, based on a vision his mother supposedly had before his birth. The song encapsulates their mission: “I’m a dog with a torch in my mouth for my Lord / making noise while I’ve got time / spreading fire while I’ve got earth.”
Humble and playful, but purposeful.
A defining characteristic of the Thomists’ tracklist is the distinctly Protestant heritage of most of the songs. I’ve always known and sung “What Wondrous Love is This” in my Protestant church. “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” could be drifting from a little white church on Mainstreet.
The traditional American tracklist appeals to both Christian and secular listeners, however, in light of the reemergence of bluegrass. The Coen brothers pulled the genre back to the surface of the contemporary music scene with their wildly successful “Oh Brother Where Art Thou,” featuring a few of the songs on the Thomists’ album.
Junior Sammy Roberts, president of Catholic Society on campus, noted the ecumenical nature of the tracklist. The Dominicans have good social media, Roberts said, noting that millenials know how to market. And evangelize.
“Just throwing Bibles isn’t gonna make converts,” he said.
The unity is timely for Hillsdale students, as questions of the Reformation became the subject of a semester’s public debate. Maybe the songs’ history signifies a small gesture toward the ecumenicism Christians are longing for.