Rockin’ Out With Dominican Friars: The Hillbilly Thomists Talk ‘Holy Ghost Power,’ Aquinas and Music of the Soul
Speaking to the lived experience of Christ, band members chat with the Register about their new album and ‘100 channels of nothing on the TV at 10. It's like diet coke and original sin.’
It has been five years since The Hillbilly Thomists released their first self-titled album that soared to the top of the bluegrass Billboard charts, offering a mixture of original music, some Americana favorites, and beautiful harmonies that never age. The band is out today with its third album, Holy Ghost Power, and the Register sat down virtually with Father Thomas Joseph White, one of the founding members of the band, alongside Father Simon Teller and Father Peter Gautsch, to learn more about this new album created in the quiet chaos of a quarantine. The band shares insights into the album, secrets about their “Old Highway Tour” kicking off this summer, and how music, since it starts in the soul, is actually one of the best ways to speak to the soul, as the Dominican friars set out to evangelize, instruments in hand.
Father, the new album, Holy Ghost Power, out today, comes just a few short weeks after Pentecost. Is this just a coincidence? What’s behind the name of the album?
Father Thomas Joseph White: Well, it's the lead song on the album, and we wanted to [give] an unambiguous illusion both to Americana Christian music and also to our kind of unique style of combining Catholic theology with folk music, bluegrass music.
I guess Don McLean comes to mind a little bit, with American Pie.
Father Thomas Joseph White: He gets a reference on the album.
Father Simon Teller: It’s a little different in style from American Pie.
Father Peter Gautsch: It’s more like “punch in your face” style.
So nobody is out down near the river holding anything — that’s great. Now, The Hillbilly Thomists first started at the Dominican House of Studies, situated in the presence of the National Shrine to our Blessed Mother — in an area many consider to be “Little Roma,” really, in our nation’s capital. Can you tell us about the origin of the band?
Father Thomas Joseph White: Well, I think the biggest thing was that we started playing music kind of as an amusement for fun, as a way to relax during fraternal events, sometimes on the weekends. And then a number of members of the band entered who had tremendous musical pasts, like Father Peter Gautsch, Father Simon Teller, both with us today, and Father Justin Bolger. And they really reconstituted the band, I would say, on a high level of expertise of harmonies and settings and solos, and we just started working on more complex routines and music. It was always fun, but it got a little more technical. And then when we decided to do an album, all those kinds of professional sentiments came out. The albums are always fun to record, but there’s also a wonderful seriousness about the professionalism of the people in the band based on their past experience. And so it just formed organically over time.
And Father Thomas Joseph, you play the banjo, correct?
Father Thomas Joseph White: I play the banjo and the steel guitar and the dulcimer. Father Simon here plays the fiddle. Father Peter Gautsch plays about five or six instruments on this album: He plays the mandolin, the slide guitar, the harmonica, the guitar and the piano, to name just a few. And then we also have people who play upright bass, we have the drummer, some guitarists and so forth.
That’s wonderful. We should also get to the root of the name, The Hillbilly Thomists; some may not be familiar with Flannery O'Connor. Can you tell us what’s behind the name?
Father Peter Gautsch: It’s a reference to a letter that Flannery O’Connor wrote. So in addition to her many short stories and her two novels, she has a collection of wonderful letters. And one of the letters, she says, “Everyone who’s read my novel, Wise Blood, thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist. But actually, I’m a hillbilly thomist.” And, of course, as one who follows, as a sort of follower of the teaching of Thomas Aquinas and his method of theology, his approach to, kind of like sapiential approach to, theology, as really coming to understand God and everything that God creates [that makes sense]. And she loves Thomas Aquinas; she used to read him at night, when she was sort of preparing for bed, and would read some of the Summa each day and make references to his work in her letters and in other places. So she was a lover of St. Thomas Aquinas, who, of course, was a Dominican. So, we, too, are lovers of St. Thomas Aquinas; and given her sort of Southern sensibilities, in the Southern character of some of our music, being from the Bluegrass country tradition a bit … it seemed a perfect name for our group.
It’s interesting. I first spoke to then-Brother Simon Teller when the first album broke in 2017, just before the album topped the bluegrass Billboard charts. And this was when the Thomistic Institute was beginning to really thrive on college campuses across the country. You also now offer a “Tiny Thomist” program for children as young as toddlers. Of course, you are all steeped in the Summa Theologica. but not many are. If someone is interested in learning about this great saint and doctor of the Church, what do you recommend as an introduction?
Father Thomas Joseph White: Oh, well, they should go and enroll in “Aquinas 101” online. There's a program of the Thomistic Institute that gives everybody an introduction to Aquinas in seven-minute video segments, with accompanying readings if you want them — they’re really accessible — very popular with millions of viewers. “Aquinas 101” has its own website; you can subscribe. And everything is free.
That’s such a great resource because so many people imagine St. Thomas Aquinas to be intangible, too high-minded thought to even reach. And all the work you guys are doing is really bridging that gap. Even with The Hillbilly Thomists, you think, is that an oxymoron? And I think that St. Thomas Aquinas can offer a real anchor right now, with so many people attempting to cling to logic, strictly knowledge or facts. And St. Thomas Aquinas did not run away from any of that — but really delved much deeper into what we can know from our heads before reaching into the heart.
Father Simon Teller: That’s right. I think one of the ingenious things about St. Thomas is that the truth that he teaches at its heart is accessible to everybody, because it's rooted in the truth of reality. And one of the great things about Father Thomas Joseph as a songwriter is that his songs just speak directly to the lived experience of someone who’s really trying to live out their faith. So there’s a great line from the Holy Ghost Power song that he wrote: “It's 100 channels of nothing on the TV at 10. It’s like diet coke and original sin.” Everybody’s had that experience of just feeling bottomed out and … coming to feel like, where is the meaning in life? And that — the truth of St. Thomas that he teaches and God, and the Gospel — is really common sense, in a lot of ways. And also, I think that we’re surprisingly, like, in a large part a children’s musical group, just because so many families listen to our music. … We get emails from theologians who are really excited about The Hillbilly Thomists, and we get a lot of emails from home-school moms who are really excited about The Hillbilly Thomists.
It really goes to show the range and the full accessibility and the real heart. I think one thing that’s unique about this album was that it was created in the midst of a pandemic. And you also released an online “Quarantine Sessions,” where you all are creating music in isolation, really, including this beautiful song Seeing, Redeeming Love. And what a moment to watch this, as you see all of you playing together. The moment when you all come in listening, waiting to be in harmony together from your separate quarters, your distant cities, all finding the same pulse. And I just thought, “What a true testimony to the living Christ who is brimming in all of us, just waiting to come out.” And I think that really touches on what you’re saying: about the core unit of the family and what we’re trying to create together as community.
Father Thomas Joseph White: I think that’s a beautiful observation. One thing we find in the band is that working together as brothers in the same religious society, where we pray together during the day and break for prayer, and also have to, of course, cook together and do the whole production as a team is that it deepens our fraternal life and our sense of our kind of Christian communion. It’s interesting to go from Eucharistic communion into a studio and try to work together on songs that we love and that we want to be creative about and professional about. And that is a kind of just pure gift of fraternal creativity for the Church and also for our own Dominican life. So we feel that very deeply, and we’re really touched that so many home-school families have chosen to prioritize the music in their own life, for their children, as a resource for them.
Shifting back to the album, there’s a beautiful song called Good Tree. Can you tell us the inspiration behind this song?
Father Peter Gautsch: Father Justin Bolger wrote that song, and he is here in Providence with Father Simon and myself; he’s the head chaplain of campus ministry here, and he and I have played a lot of music. The two of us, since we’ve both been together in campus ministry this year, we were sitting down. I guess it wasn’t too, too long before we got together to record last summer. And he said, they wanted to show me this new song. He just had his guitar — it was a fairly simple arrangement of the song and very catchy, and so he just listened to it a little bit and played around with it a little bit and, and, I said, “Well, we’ve got to record this with everyone.” And so when we all came together to record, it really grew. So the version of it that’s in that video, which we put out a few days ago, is a live recording: You’re seeing us performing the song, as you’re hearing it. And so it’s slightly different audio than the album version, which really does grow into this really kind of triumphant sounding [song]. It’s a very joyful-sounding song. And it’s full of the joy of the Gospel. I think this is one of the things I love about this song: that it’s for the joy of the Gospel. It’s very rich in the way that it uses this imagery from all over Scripture about the tree, which is nourished by the living waters and provides shade for the birds of the air … but it also has this hope that I want to be this good tree. The refrain of the song is: “Oh, to be a good tree, oh, to be a good tree.” … And so it’s a beautiful combination, I think, of the joy of the Gospel and of the joy of the hope that we have in the grace of Christ, who transforms us to be “good trees.” So I think it’s a real testament to his songwriting and also just to the richness of the Gospel.
I have to say, I own the other two albums, but the first one is definitely my favorite — so many songs of Americana being shared — but I think my favorite is perhaps a song, I believe, written by Father Justin also, I’m Just a Dog for My Lord. I have that album on in the car all the time. And my daughter loves it. It’s just a real heart-filled moment in the car, and the lyrics: “spreading fire while I got Earth… and how you wish, it was already lit …’ but here you are still working away. There’s such a steadfast trust shared in that song. But speaking of dogs, can we dig into why the Dominicans are known as “Hounds of the Lord”?
Father Thomas Joseph White: Absolutely. So the background for that is that, apparently, Blessed Jane of Aza, the mother of St. Dominic, had a dream right before he was born, that there was a dog kicking in her womb. And then she saw in the dream the dog, after it was born, so to speak, running around Europe with a torch in its mouth. And this is seen as a prophetic dream of St. Dominic, who would be one of the first mendicant friars traveling from place to place, preaching the Gospel; “Hound of the Lord,” going abroad and bringing the fire of the truth. Now, it’s also the case that, in Latin, Dominus (Lord) and canis, the word for “dog,” can be put together so you have Domini Canes or “Dogs of the Lord.” The pun plays off of the title for the Dominicans.
How fascinating — just even knowing that song now, it just speaks much more loudly. Now, The Hillbilly Thomists have also just released tour dates for “The Old Highway Tour.” Can you tell us about it? I feel like this is the epitome of the New Evangelization: rocking out with Dominican friars.
Father Thomas Joseph White: The whole notion of “The Old Highway Tour” comes from one of the songs on the album, Old Highway. This is a song I wrote which is sort of a story of mystical Vagrant, for lack of a better term, who is a person who has abandoned his ordinary social responsibilities to travel America and find God. So it’s a somewhat zany song, although it has a kind of a, I think, haunting resonance to it. There’s a slight homage, perhaps, to Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash in the album, in terms of the style, and Peter has a tremendous solo on the slide guitar in the midst of this piece. So it’s a haunting traveling piece about driving west on Highway 66 in America. The band just spontaneously named the tour after this idea of traveling, seeking God, playing music, that kind of thing.
And this is the first tour for the band?
Father Simon Teller: This is our first tour, so we’re really excited about this, because before, a couple of years ago, before the pandemic, we would play at Appaloosa, in Virginia, and we would do a couple local shows around D.C. every once in a while. But we’ve never really had any sustained public performances. And this is really the first time that we’ll be putting on true concerts. … This will be our first tour, and we’re really excited about it because we can also bring our music to places outside of the D.C. area, which is where the band came together from the Dominican House of Studies. We’re going to, like you said, New York; we’re going to Cleveland, to Cincinnati, to Nashville, to Chicago, to Pittsburgh. … It’s really great to be able to bring our music to the people who love it.
As you all eloquently state on the press release for the tour: “A band like none other, The Hillbilly Thomists remain friars, preachers even when on the stage, a dynamic that promises to give each show a spiritual itinerary of its own, passing through this world below unto the bright land of that new city lit by the Lamb.” Can you speak a little bit about that kind of witness?
Father Peter Gautsch: Well, I think that in this next album, most of the songs are original songs, which has given us some more freedom as preachers to preach with the music that we perform for people and that we record. Because there’s some good things to meditate on. And a lot of the Americana standards, and the ones we chose for our first album were chosen for that reason. But to be writing our own songs and performing those now for people more has given us, I think, increased a number of avenues for reaching people. And so … the ability to bring music to people on a tour, as a certain mode of preaching … we do remain friars, preachers, even when we’re on stage; it is really exciting to be able to both bring the music that we’re really excited about to people, but to preach to them. That’s what we’re called to do. It’s said of St. Dominic that he always spoke to God or about God, and he encouraged his brothers to do the same. So as much fun as the music is, we intend it to be spiritually edifying for people and helpful. And we’re hoping that the tour will be an occasion for us to be able to do that through the music.
A big theme of the Pope’s latest papal document focuses on liturgy. How do you think the mission of The Hillbilly Thomists may help draw attention to the importance of music, in our own faith lives as well as even at Mass?
Father Simon Teller: Like Father Peter said, our music is a preaching ministry of our province, of the Dominican province of St. Joseph, and one of the great things about this preaching ministry through music is that it shows the different ways in which music can function within the Christian life. … There’s music that we use in our formal liturgical worship. But there’s also ways in which we just sing to praise the Lord. There’s music that functions within the Christian life outside of the liturgy. And I think that that’s where, definitely in our Dominican tradition, we place The Hillbilly Thomists kind of music, where, it came from our fraternal life of playing music together, in the recreation room, and I think we really bring it into other people’s living rooms and into their hearts in that way.
As you all know, here, of course, in this country, the United States, Roe v. Wade was just reversed. And we have the country here half celebrating, half mourning, or worse: vandalizing Catholic churches as well as pro-life pregnancy centers. We are a bit fractured at the moment in our own country. And music holds such a power in bringing people together, and your music is quite a testimony to that. Improvisation is also such an important part of a jamming band. You all ultimately find the same pulse, but it might take a few seconds to get there …
Father Thomas Joseph White: When we play music together, the creativity of one person spurs the creativity of another, and one of the things that’s obvious about this whole process for us is that when we bring material, whether it’s songs or solos, or ideas, you can find the complementarity, leaping out of another person’s creative imagination and then taking the thing further. And so the compilation of everyone playing together is far more profound and rich than any singular effort. But I think that that’s true in general about cooperation among human beings in creative and political life. Inviting people to collaborate with the Catholic mission in the Catholic Church and inviting people in the broader culture to collaborate in the renewal of culture is a key theme in our own Catholic lives, and music is a way that you can go beyond some of the normal frontiers of conversation about morality, politics and religion and enter into another kind of conversation, another kind of collaboration around the enjoyment of Beauty and the celebration of life that’s embodied in human music.
Well, that is a beautiful note to end on, Father; thank you all for joining us today — and thank you again for your music that inspires and uplifts so many.
Father Thomas Joseph White: Thanks for saying that. That means a lot.
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- dominican house of studies
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