He Who Plays Bluegrass Prays Many Times Over

Bob Rice is a mild-mannered college professor who teaches catechetics at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

He’s also an extraordinary musician who travels to bring an engaging mélange of melody, theology and even comedy to churches and youth groups around the country. (He’s also the father of four young children — all of whom, he says, “want to play the guitar.”)

Rice has several CDs out but right now his attention is focused on his latest, “Nowhere Else to Go,” in which he explores the uniquely American genre of bluegrass music. When it’s released next month, it will be available through his website, BobRiceMusic.com. He recently spoke with Register correspondent Iain Bernhoft.

You’re adept at playing different styles of music. Did you come from a musical family?

My dad grew up in Boston and led a big band in the ’30s and ’40s, while my mom was a great singer. We were kind of like the Von Trapp family every Christmas, singing carols with four-part harmonies. I loved singing, so I just started to get into music.

How did you initially come to the youth-ministry Franciscan University scene?

I was in Orlando, playing in a local band and working at an improv comedy club. Both gigs were going great, and I was thinking about going out to L.A. with some friends. I was hired by Franciscan University to do comedy and music at a youth conference and, through the Rosary, I felt Mary was calling me to move to Steubenville and be a youth minister.

I left the comedy club, broke up the band and came here with no idea of what I was going to do. I started taking classes and ended up in a class in catechetics. I realized that teaching youth ministers was God’s will. I felt like that verse in Jeremiah: “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.”

So yours is a story more of finding vocation than of sudden conversion.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love the Lord. But I realized why I loved being Catholic when the Catechism came out. It blew up in my face in a joyful, joyful way.

How does being a professor of catechetics influence your music?

In my songs, I lean more toward teaching than praise and worship. I want to share God’s truth and make people look at God in a different and unique way. On my bluegrass album, I’m subtly quoting Vatican documents, St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila. I’m basically finding different ways to sing the Catechism.

How do you balance teaching with your various musical endeavors?

I think of all these as being parts of the same project, proclaiming God’s love with every gift I’ve been given. I just have the luxury of thinking, “How will I do it this weekend?” It’s my job to proclaim the riches of the Catholic Church, and invite people into love with Jesus and his mother.

What does music bring to the table that others forms of communication don’t?

Sharing the faith can’t just be an intellectual or academic pursuit; there’s a difference between sharing something as information vs. sharing something as transformation. When you put words and music together, it not only speaks to the mind but also grabs the heart and asks it to sing along. I think that’s why St. Augustine said that singing is praying twice.

Your previous output has been predominantly rock, with some country tinges. What precipitated the move to bluegrass?

What I love about bluegrass is it has an innocence, a spirituality to it. It came out of an American spirituality that’s very open to life. You can go back and forth between spiritual and secular in ways rock seemingly can’t. In rock music, I felt like I was diving into the heart of the culture of death with a message of life. It’s a cultural battleground. Christians are segregated and, even in Christian rock, there are some anti-Church tendencies.

Do you think this segregation is counterproductive?

I love John Paul II saying that we’re supposed to impregnate the culture with the Gospel. As artists in Catholic world, we shouldn’t be painting a picture of Jesus but a picture of the world with Christ in it. I think that’s the problem with the Protestant attempt to replicate the secular world as Christian. We shouldn’t try to create a separate culture but be within the culture and transform it from within. The attractiveness of bluegrass is that it’s a medium that doesn’t shudder when you talk about God.

Do you think bluegrass has a widespread appeal?

There used to be the conception that bluegrass was a guy without teeth playing a banjo. But artists like Nickel Creek or Allison Krauss sound so beautiful that they take the medium beyond the leg-slapping, washboard-playing stereotype. It’s often called “newgrass,” as it often has percussion and the harmonies are a little cleaner, but it’s rooted in the bluegrass vibe. Father Edward Richard, who plays banjo on the album, told me that polls show that 90% of bluegrass concertgoers self-identify as “devoutly or somewhat devoutly religious,” with the highest percentage being Catholic. But no one else is doing Catholic bluegrass.

What’s behind the title of the new album?

“Nowhere Else” comes out of a reading of John’s sixth chapter. In the walk of faith, we all come to that moment of truth where God challenges us with something very counter-cultural. What we should recognize is that, if Jesus isn’t the Way, the Truth and the Life, then my life is wasted because I’ve invested so much. I think this is the most dramatic moment of a person’s spiritual life.

The song “In the Land of My Exile” has the line, “When you give your tragic lyrics to the King/ He inspires them with a joyful melody.” Has this been your experience?

I do think that is a way I approach life, which is to say I think life can be sad lyrics to a happy song. It’s God who takes our words, even words of suffering and changes them into joyful song of praise.

And that duality, sad words set to happy music, is characteristic of bluegrass music.

Absolutely. It’s a music of optimism, with a contagiously joyful spirit even with people who are struggling. Bluegrass can elicit hope even in dire circumstances.

How has embracing bluegrass changed your approach to writing music?

Bluegrass tends to have more instrumentals, although fewer lyrics is also a conscious shift on my part. I’ve fallen in love with Carmelite spirituality, especially St. John of Cross — he’s somewhere on every album I’ve written. I’m resting more with the Lord, finding that I don’t need to say as much to lead people into prayer. Musically, it’s a huge step up. I hadn’t realized how much easier praise-and-worship music is until I set out to record this album.

Iain Bernhoft writes from

Spokane, Washington.