When I first heard The Hillbilly Thomists, I recalled the words of GK Chesterton echoing in his smoky Beaconsville office, towering above me with his enormous gut of jolly while declaring, “it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most” (6). Indeed, it was St. Francis’ stark poverty in contrast to the opulence of the church that gave rise to a great order of mendicants, and it was St. Thomas’ heavenly metaphysics that has inspired generations of scientists from succumbing to materialism. Today, we have The Hillbilly Thomists’ first album as a powerful counter-cultural force to modernity, pitting the old world of banjos, bagpipes and drum sets into the new millennium, and the result is a joy to hear!
The album begins with “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms” a glorious ode to living a life solely dependent on Christ. Right from the start, the song bursts with toe-tapping energy, solidly carrying the message of fellowship and peace into the bluegrass genre. Half-tuned violins fill the melodies with excited riffs, accompanied by that distinctive, vocal sound of Kentucky bluegrass. “Angel Band” slows down the tempo with its sparkling guitar accompaniment, while Gregorian chant-trained Dominicans add a touch of the divine to an otherwise earth-scented genre.
Doesn’t this make you wanna rock a banjo?
This ragtag group of preachers has made new recompositions of old songs, while creating new ones such as “I’m a Dog.” This original composition was written by the band’s lead vocalist, Br. Justin Bolger, formerly a professional singer and songwriter before entering the order of the Dominicans. The “dog” of course, being a reference to the popular symbol of the Dominicans as a dog with a torch in its mouth, spreading the good news of the Lord to all lands in faithful friendship with his Master. The lyrics (as they frequently do throughout the album) convey the paradoxical message that life is short and passing, yet it’s most well-lived by giving it away: “Making noise while I got time / Spreading fire while I got earth.” There’s no trace of melancholy or sadness in this sacrifice —it’s an exuberance that can only be described as child-like in sincerity.
My favorite song however, would be “What Wondrous Love Is This.” It asks the impossible question of why our Lord suffered such a terrible death for us, who are insignificant and imperfect: “What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss / to bear the dreadful curse for my soul / for my soul.” But the song never gives an answer to this question. It’s reminiscing of God’s answer to Job: “Where were you when I founded the earth? / Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4). The song goes through one last, short chorus (“Through eternity I’ll sing on”) then breaks away into an epic 3-minute banjo and violin accompaniment. Drums beat steady and strong, while strings ring in vibratio, as if they tremble at the existential question that has been posed. All in all, the album conveys the energy of a soul’s heroic journey through life, asking this same question but never being provided a direct answer, because it’s impossible…In the meantime, all we can do is “sing on” in praise of such “wondrous love.”
Chesterton, G. K. Saint Thomas Aquinas. Image Classics. 1974.