One way the Catholic Church has always fulfilled the mission entrusted to her by Christ is by confidently consecrating this world’s customs and institutions to eternal purposes.
America has proven to be unusually challenging terrain for this work. Too often, attempts to make these new shores feel like home for the Church of the Old World have resulted in fashioning the Church in America’s image, rather than vice versa. This has sometimes created difficulties for American Catholics, leaving them torn between embracing a notably Americanized Catholicism and flirting with an impious anti-American traditionalism.
Consider music. The most prominent merging of distinctly American music with the Catholic tradition is the collection of ditties foisted upon the English-speaking world by the St. Louis Jesuits. Less well-known is the attempt of convert Mary Lou Williams to craft sacred music in the jazz idiom: While Mary Lou’s Mass may not have hit the mark as a setting for the Sacrifice, portions of Black Christ of the Andes suggested that the most American musical genre could be baptized into the Church of Rome.
Enter the Hillbilly Thomists—a group of friars of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph—and their second album, Living for the Other Side. Not since being introduced to Mary Lou’s work have I felt so encouraged by, and at home with, an admixture of American and Catholic culture. This is the Church at her best, giving up none of her authenticity while carefully and lovingly embracing this culture, this place, these people—and in the process elevating and perfecting them.
Living for the Other Side showcases a remarkable variety of styles, instrumentations, vocals, and lyrics—including several original compositions. And yet, in another expression of catholicity, there is unity in this diversity, with motifs of communion, peace of soul, and preparation for death woven throughout. These are all themes pervasive in Appalachian music, and they feel refreshed in the hands of these twangy theologians.
The album begins with “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed,” a meditative round based on the parable of the ten bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13). It functions like an introit, introducing the themes and setting the tone for the remainder of the album. “Our Help Is in the Name of the Lord” picks up the pace with some classy banjo picking, while reminding us where our help and hope truly lie.
According to Spotify, the most popular track on Living for the Other Side is the third, Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s “Bourbon, Bluegrass, and the Bible.” Its chorus includes the album’s only clear reference to current events:
Death's in the world and it's gone viral
Everybody's talking ‘bout a new revival
When it's a question of love and survival
Bourbon, bluegrass and the Bible
Besides the initial letters, what unites this triptych is that each of these three is best when shared—and each, in its own way, can even catalyze communion. Bluegrass, after all, is an intrinsically collaborative genre: Its form is part of the content it communicates. (This album, we are told, is a product of 10 days of prayer and jam sessions in the order’s Catskills retreat.) In the face of death’s new ordnance, there is strength in numbers, not to defeat death but to live well “for the other side” in full knowledge of it (and in spite of it), growing together in the Lord and his Word.
It is that divine communion from which all interpersonal communion emanates, and to which it is ordered. The fruit of this unity is peace, expressed in the Hillbilly Thomists' tremendous rendition of one of my favorite hymns, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” which feels like it was written for this folk treatment.
In a sense, it was: Not only does the hymn share Scottish Presbyterian roots with Appalachia, but as a Catholic and an American it feels like these words and instruments and traditions are finding, in the hands of these white-clad friars, the fullness of their God-ordained purpose.
Brandon McGinley is a writer and editor in Pittsburgh.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.