August 13, 2022

The Hillbilly Thomists perform on Aug. 1, 2022, at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. The bluegrass band, made up of Dominican friars, was the opening act of a concert hosted by the Knights of Columbus in conjunction with the fraternal order’s annual convention. / Courtesy of Matthew Barrick/Knights of Columbus

Nashville, Tenn., Aug 4, 2022 / 12:00 pm (CNA).

The famous Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Tennessee, has hosted stars such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, and many more.

But it wasn’t until Aug. 1 that a band of wisecracking, bluegrass-playing, Spirit-filled Dominican friars had played the legendary venue.

The Hillbilly Thomists claimed that historic distinction with a rousing, humorous performance as the opening act of a concert hosted by the Knights of Columbus, whose annual convention was held Aug. 1-4 at the nearby Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center.

The friars’ show was made all the more special by the presence of dozens of their religious sisters, from the Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia in Nashville, who clapped, sang, and laughed along with the band.

“It was a little bit unfair having a home crowd,” joked Father Joseph Martin Hagan, the band’s drummer. 

One of the sisters present, Sister Anne Catherine Burleigh, told CNA after the performance that the friars rose to the challenge of playing on such a prestigious stage.

“We know a lot of our brothers and they’re wonderful priests, and it’s fun to see them bring out their study of theology in this very fun way,” she said.

The band’s name explained

Proceeds from the band’s album sales, donations, and merchandise sales support the formation of friars at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., where the Hillbilly Thomists first came together.

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“We’re Catholic priests who play Americana music. We started doing it in-house as a way that the family tries to relax. Really it’s a form of recreation, storytelling … it’s fun,” band member Father Timothy Danaher told CNA in an interview backstage before the show.

Members of the Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia enjoying a performance of The Hillbilly Thomists at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville on Aug. 1, 2022. Joe Bukuras/CNA
Members of the Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia enjoying a performance of The Hillbilly Thomists at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville on Aug. 1, 2022. Joe Bukuras/CNA

The band drew inspiration for its name from a letter written by Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor. “Everyone who’s read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas … I’m a hillbilly Thomist,” she wrote, referring to her love of St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican.

“So, we, too, are lovers of St. Thomas Aquinas,” Father Peter Gautsch, one of the band’s founding members, recently told the National Catholic Register, “and given her sort of Southern sensibilities, [and] the Southern character of some of our music, being from the bluegrass country tradition … it seemed a perfect name for our group.”

The band’s third album, “Holy Ghost Power,” came out in July. The title track captures the humor and evangelistic themes the friars’ fans love so much. A sample verse:

You got to tear down the wall and read Saint Paul

Burn like fire after the fall

You got to change things up if you’ve heard the word

You’ve got to die inside and serve the bird

“It was such a joy to hear them be able to share the fruits of their contemplation with everyone who’s ready to receive it,” Dominican Sister Josemaria Pence told CNA after the band’s six-song set.

“They’ve given their life to the Lord and it’s a joyful life,” she said. “So it’s wonderful to see the joy that they can share with other people.”

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