Dominican Fr. Thomas Joseph White, co-founder of the U.S.-based bluegrass band The Hillbilly Thomists. CNS photo/Robert Duncan

Picker priest explains bluegrass appeal

By  Robert Duncan, Catholic News Service
  • March 28, 2021

ROME -- Rome’s baroque churches, street-side shrines to the Virgin Mary and regular cycle of papal liturgies conjure fitting sentiments for a priest living and teaching theology in the Eternal City.

When Dominican Fr. Thomas Joseph White gets out his National Reso-Phonic guitar, however, his heart is thousands of kilometres away — in rural Appalachia.

“I play this guitar most days in my office looking out at the Roman Forum that’s 2,700 years-old,” White wrote in a letter to the National Guitar Company. “I really appreciate Italian culture and it’s amazing heritage, but then I’m also really proud to come from a culture that created a guitar like this.”

White, 49, who teaches at Rome’s Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a founding member of the Dominican priest-led bluegrass band The Hillbilly Thomists. The band’s’ second album, Living for the Other Side, was released last December.

Featuring many original compositions, several written by White, the new album regularly references sin, death and salvation in Jesus. Yet, the Georgia-born singer doesn’t think of his contribution as Christian music.

“As soon as you say something (is) ‘Christian music,’ to be honest, I have a kind of negative reaction. I just think about good music,” White said, rebuffing the idea that he views the new CD as primarily an extension of the Dominicans’ — or Order of Preachers’ — preaching ministry.

“I don’t think that we are very calculative about it; I think we try to just play music that maybe expresses our ordinary life.”

For a friar who has taken a vow of poverty, though, that ordinary life is expressed in the album’s lyrics in verses such as: “All possessions eventually rust,” “Truth is the very best medicine,” and “My soul’s alright but my body complains.”

“I think probably the goal is not really to worry about being a good Christian when you do something artistic, it’s about worrying about doing something artistically well,” White said. “And if you have a deep Christian grounding, it’s going to come out and probably your own questions or your complicated way of being a Christian is going to come out a little bit.”

The band, nine friars from the Dominican Province of St. Joseph in the eastern United States, has negotiated a niche identity by embracing a musical form long used devotionally by Baptists and Methodists and appropriating it for the Catholic Church.

“We like to joke that in bluegrass music, the three main themes are God, murder and unrequited love, and that the best bluegrass songs have all three in them.”

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