I grew up in the Midwest. My folks were both well-educated people. In fact, both were Phi Beta Kappa – a standard to which I failed to ascend – and my father was a professor and department chairman at THE Ohio State University. The Miners and my mom’s people, the Earnharts, were all Buckeyes, unto the fourth generation. I’m the only Catholic.
Ohio is not Kentucky. Think of Ohio and maybe you think of the Rust Belt. Think of the Bluegrass State and you may think of the South, although Kentucky was not secessionist during the Late Unpleasantness, despite the fact that the sympathies of many Kentuckians leaned that way.
Anyway . . . Bluegrass music (hereafter capitalized to distinguish it from the stuff that carpets lawns and grows on the infield at Churchill Downs) also apparently evokes the South. And that’s about half right because Bluegrass is Appalachian; if you look at a map you’ll see that Appalachia is pretty much bisected by the old Mason-Dixon line, except there’s actually a bit more of it in the North. West Virginia, you know, is northern, as are Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio, and Southern New York.
Bluegrass is a musical genre with its roots firmly in Appalachian and hillbilly subculture. “Hillbilly,” an originally derogatory term (and for some still an epithet), refers simply to Appalachian Mountain people and their subculture. (Another Ohioan, J.D. Vance, recently tried to explain all this and won both praise and censure.)
My family, despite our academic pedigrees (well, the parents had them; the kids were working on them), sometimes watched TV during dinner, eaten off folding tray tables, and one of the shows we liked was Midwestern Hayride. Hayride was mostly a country music jamboree but – given Midwestern demographics – with some polka music (and dancing) thrown in. The show had begun in the Thirties on radio and came to television in the Fifties.
On Saturday nights, we’d sometimes watch the Grand Ole Opry on ABC, and that’s where I saw Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys play the first Bluegrass I’d ever heard. I loved the sound of Flatt’s mandolin (he also played guitar), with Scruggs plucking the banjo, Paul Warren sawing the fiddle, and “Uncle” Josh Graves pickin’ and slidin’ on the dobro. Their “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” fairly defines the Bluegrass genre – instrumentally at least.
And in elementary school, we had a music teacher who played autoharp, and sometimes she’d sing one or another sorrowful song. I remember her on “Angel Band,” a touching Civil War-era tune.
All this reminiscence is background to introducing a new – in December – recording of Bluegrass music by – mirabile dictu – the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Some folks will tell you Washington is really a Southern city. Maybe so.
The album’s title is taken from a quip Flannery O’Connor once made to a TV interviewer: “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas I would like to create the impression over the television that I’m a hillbilly Thomist.”
Miss O’Connor saw in her literary work a connection to the Catholicism of St. Thomas (“with the ways grace is at work among people who do not have access to the sacraments”). And these Dominican friar musicians see a link twixt Appalachian folk songs and the Gospels. It’s a link that’s really always been there, although rarely – if ever – in a Catholic, let alone monastic, context.
If your only introduction to Bluegrass was the Coen Brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou, a tongue-in-cheek Homeric satire in which George Clooney and his co-stars lip-sync (as the Soggy Bottom Boys – a nod to Flatt and Scruggs) the 1913 classic “Man of Constant Sorrow” (here by Patty Loveless), you’d have a whiff of the genre, but only that. The movie soundtrack features some genuinely fine performances (Ralph Stanley’s amazing “O Death” for one), but that soundtrack is mostly . . . slick. Genuine bluegrass is not so Top-40 polished.
As my wife would tell you, Bluegrass can be a matter of taste. The nasal whine some performers (Iris DeMent for one) employ may be grating, and some voices may seem raw in a never-had-a-music-lesson-my-life sort of way. But that’s its charm and power.
So enter these Dominican friars, not one of whom would likely make it through a first audition on American Idol, which is what makes Hillbilly Thomists so satisfying.
There are mostly standards here, including “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” “Amazing Grace,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” and the aforementioned “Angel Band.”
Two priests, eight brothers, and twelve songs in all.
About that wonderful cover (first image above), I asked Brother Simon Teller (fiddle and vocals): “Are the Dominicans pictured on the album cover the performers on the album itself? If so, it is a very artful rendering of a contemporary image to evoke the heritage of Bluegrass music.”
“To answer your question,” Brother Simon replied, “the cover photo was taken in 1926, and we discovered it in our archives. Aside from that, we don’t have too much information about the friars depicted.”
As the Dominicans (some depicted in the color photo, a few of whom actually hail from Appalachia) explain, the Bluegrass folk tradition “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.”
Well, if Aquinas could “baptize” Aristotle, why can’t the Dominicans do the same for Bluegrass?
Note, you can sample the album on YouTube, but, please, consider buying it. I did. Proceeds from the sale of Hillbilly Thomists will help support the students at the Dominican House of Studies. Order it from the Dominicans via the Dominicana website where there’s more traditional Catholic music available as well – and other riches besides.