Album Review: The Hillbilly Thomists

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If there’s one certain way to ensure that I will be parted from my money, it would be to combine Thomistic theology with bluegrass. Such an implausible mashup has indeed manifested itself in at least one instantiation of the multiverse in the form of the newly released album The Hillbilly Thomists.

Produced by the Dominican House of Studies, known for other more traditional works, The Hillbilly Thomists is a celebration of both Dominican spirituality and the best of American folk spirituality in song. Gospel, spirituals and twang converge in a fun synthesis that is at once fresh yet familiar. Well-known classics such as Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, Just a Closer Walk with Thee and What Wondrous Love is This receive the Dominican House of Studies treatment, which infuses both an evident passion and depth that shines through in each tune. From the website:

Traditional bluegrass music is playful and energetic; along with American folk music, it often contains explicitly theological themes: belief in Christ, the goodness of life, the pain of unrequited love, the finality of death, and hope in eternal life. It is a traditional southern form of testimony to the presence of grace in the human heart. So when it is played by Dominicans who study Thomas Aquinas, there is no doubt that what comes about as a result is Hillbilly Thomism.

The unlikely mashup may at first blush seem a novelty or some gimmicky niche product; however, the tracks contained within are anything but phoned in. In each arrangement one can hear the distinctive musicality of the Hillbilly Thomists. In true bluegrass fashion, this is not an album intended to be flawless in execution nor overly produced. There is a pleasantly raw quality to the recordings that gives the project an unmistakable air of authenticity, and allows the particular flavor of the ensembles shine through. Born out of an evangelistic effort in which the brothers often play in the community, that same dynamic is entirely evident within.

Be sure to take a listen:

Leaning on the Everlasting Arms opens up The Hillbilly Thomists, and provides a fitting introduction. Fiddle and banjo complement the light percussion and weave in and out of the vocalizations of this classic song, at times even providing a sort of counterpoint to the melody. There are some nice harmonizations, especially as the song concludes.

Angel Band is a song I had not previously encountered, but uses some sparse instrumentation with some fun vocal stylings to create a contemplative tune with an oddly catchy O Brother Where Art Thou-esque melody. The interesting aspect of this track is that it is entirely about hope in the face of an impending death. One becomes acquainted with the depths of faith expressed in the lyric which, while perhaps a bit sentimental in tone, can for there subject matter perhaps not be too badly faulted. The essence of this unwavering hope that arises out of Dominican spirituality is perhaps best expressed by a blurb on the website:

In 1955, the southern author Flannery O’Connor said of herself, “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas. . .I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” She said that her fiction was concerned with the ways grace is at work among people who do not have access to the sacraments. The Thomist (one who follows the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas) 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.

What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul? captures the raw and twangy essence of bluegrass. The main vocal drawls a bit, entirely absorbing the attention of the listener, and the harmonies sit nicely in the background, while at other times serving as a sort of call and response during the refrain for a totally satisfying effect. The mandolins shine here about halfway through the track, and the plucking of intervals has a great driving effect that naturally propels the track forward without feeling in the least bit rushed, culminating in a lovely harmony at the end.

Poor Wayfaring Stranger is a standard that receives The Hillbilly Thomists treatment, and retains that lilting, slightly haunting cadence and rhythmic flow that is characteristic of the tune. The banjo sits nicely in the pocket, at times picking out phrases and even improvising around the melody. The vocals are largely understated, blending well into the song although pulling out at opportune times. All of this adds to the sense of pilgrimage, but one that is characterized by a consistent direction and intention while living in the tension of almost-but-not-yet. 

Amazing Grace is an original arrangement of the timeless classic which is largely a capela, albeit with some light percussion throughout. This fresh take on Amazing Grace is a an excellent example of how this album feels at once so familiar but also entirely new.

I’m a Dog is the only original on the album, and is a really catchy tune. There is a great sense of joy and just plain having fun that comes through this track. The lyrics reflect this sort of joyful purpose:

I’m a dog with a torch

in my mouth for my Lord

Making noise while I got time

Spreading fire while I got earth

How you wish it was already lit

Give me your fire I’ll do your work

I’m just a dog for my Lord

The inspiration for this song comes from a legend associated with St. Dominic in which his mother had a vision in which her unborn son was a dog with a torch in its mouth who would set the world on fire. St. Dominic grew up to found the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans) who had an incalculable impact on the world through their preaching and ministry. 

This song is one of the most produced and instrumentally rich, and also has some rather nice dynamics. There is a jangly feel through the refrain which then breaks down into the bridge which what is at once an extremely clever, agonizingly beautiful and profound lyric:

When I found Him

Whom my heart loved

I took hold of Him

Would not let Him go

 

When I found Him

Whom my heart loved

He took hold of me

Would not let me go

Would not let me go

The sense of abandonment to God’s will and the desire to set the world on fire comes through with a joyful clarity, creating a song that is fun, catchy and full of some deep theology.

Steal Away to Jesus strips away most of the ornamentation of the instrumentation of the previous tracks and largely opts for a piano and vocal arrangement for much of the track with light accents here and there until it becomes more produced towards the end. The result is a rich tapestry of heartfelt desire in the mode of an old spiritual. The simple melody has a way of working its way into your mind and your heart, and it’s difficult to not hum it throughout the day.

St. Anne’s Reel brings a decidedly Celtic flair into the mix and is a fun romp that encapsulates the joy that weaves in and out of this album. 

What A Friend We Have in Jesus is another slightly raucous romp through this classic, bringing all the energy and twang of bluegrass to bear on it. Admittedly I have never particularly cared for this song in general, and thus this was one of my least favorite tracks of the album. 

What Wondrous Love is This is a richly ornamented take on this well-known and loved folk hymn. It moves seamlessly from a more driving rhythm to break downs with vocal and fiddle accompaniment to improvisations on guitar around the melody. The instrumentation dances around with various instruments making their presence felt, yet never in an overbearing way.

The longest track on the album, there is plenty of room for the instrumentals to shine, and ends up feeling like a bunch of guys in a band just having fun playing around with a melody, perhaps nodding to each other to take over, laughing and smiling as the soloist pulls off something amazing. Even though the melody is perhaps a bit dour, that becomes eventually intermingled with joy and recapitulates the sense of journey or pilgrimage that forms the warp and woof of The Hillbilly Thomists.

To Canaan’s Land feels a bit awkward coming immediately on the heels of the previous track, but in its own syncopated way refocuses the musical direction and also one’s state of mind. The melody is catchy and the beat foot-stompy, while a banjo has some nice licks in the interludes. The hope on the journey perhaps finds a sort of crystallization here, as those hopes become concretized:

Dear friends, there’ll be no sad farewells

There’ll be no tear dimmed eyes

Where all is joy and peace and love

And the soul of man never dies

Just a Closer Walk With Thee wraps up the album with a slightly jangly rendition of this beloved classic that at times threatens to musically drift off into a quasi-tropical feel. It stays grounded in its blue-grass roots, however, by means of the slightly out-of-tune upright piano and the drawling fiddle passages. 

All in all, The Hillbilly Thomists is an excellent album that I keep going back to again and again, and at times find myself humming or whistling or singing or learning to play on guitar. If you like bluegrass music and you like Thomism, be sure to check it out.

Highly Recommended.

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Jason Watson

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