A few years ago, I wrote a piece for First Things titled “The Dominican Option”—a response to percolating debates over Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.” By turning to the Dominicans, I thought, critics could embrace all the salutary points Dreher had made about the need to withdraw from the world in order to form Christian communities, while also giving greater emphasis to the dominical command to make missionary disciples of all nations. The Dominican Option was a way of talking about how Christians could both “strategically withdraw” for properly ecclesial formation, and be sent to proclaim truth, both natural and supernatural, in the public square. I also noted how attractive it was to see those white-habited Dominican friars with banjos on subways as a kind of counter-sign of pilgrim joy amidst the world. And so the image most often associated with the Dominican Option is a friar with a banjo on the subway.
Little did I know how much those banjos mattered. At the time I proposed the Dominican Option, “The Hillbilly Thomists” were just beginning to form. But after nearly four years of performing, they’ve now produced their first album, and it is a veritable feast of Bluegrass banjo bliss! The twelve-song album includes nineteenth- and twentieth-century bluegrass classics, such as Jefferson Hascal’s “Angel Band” (prominently featured in the Cohen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?), as well as original bluegrass arrangements of hymns such as “Amazing Grace” and “What Wondrous Love Is This.”
Many of the songs chosen for the album emphasize the theme of pilgrimage, and the vocal harmonies of songs like “Angel Band” remind us of our heavenly destination. From the opening track, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” we learn about how sweet it is to walk “in this pilgrim way.” The beautifully produced music video that promotes the new album features Br. Simon Teller’s pitch-perfect rendition of the pilgrim’s ballad, and the fourth track, “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” which hints at the way Dominicans have understood their witness as a joyful sign of contradiction in a world that is passing away.
Br. Justin Bolger, O.P.—who was a professional singer/songwriter before entering the Order of Preachers—provides the album’s one original composition, humorously titled “I’m a Dog.” This sixth and central track gets to the heart of the Domini-canes (“Dogs of the Lord”) and their burning sense of mission. St. Dominic envisioned his preachers as dogs who had been given a torch of fire to proclaim the Gospel:
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 album also highlights Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s plaintive rendition of “What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul?” Fr. White’s “old-timey” sound reverberates with a call not only to repentance, but to conversion, on “Mercy is Calling You.” On the eleventh track, “To Canaan’s Land,” the great theologian recalls to mind the heavenly joy of being free from death, free from all sad farewells in a land where a “garden blooms,” where “love shines to light the shores of home.” It’ll make you weep. But the whole album might be summed up by “St. Anne’s Reel,” an absolutely delightful, finger-picking, foot-stomping instrumental reel of joy ordered to God.
The album is released today and can be purchased for a song. Spend your Advent listening to The Hillbilly Thomists harmonize, and soon you’ll be singing along with these poor wayfaring strangers whose bluegrass preaching will most definitely illuminate your Christmas. Like St. Dominic’s dogs, it might even put a torch in your mouth.
C.C. Pecknold is associate professor of theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.