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 U.S.-born, Dominican Father Thomas Joseph White gets out his National Reso-Phonic guitar, however, his heart is thousands of miles 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,” whose first album performed competitively on the Billboard charts for the genre when it was released in 2017.
“Living for the Other Side,” the groups’ second album, was released in December 2020.
Featuring many original compositions, several written by White, the new album regularly references sin, death and salvation in Jesus. Yet, the Georgia-born singer and songwriter 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,” White said.
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.”
“Part of the advantage we have is that because we’re Catholic religious, we sort of live in the field of religious ideas all the time, (we) live in liturgy all the time. So, in a way, music is not our act of piety,” White explained. “This kind of music, it’s more our act of rest. It’s a kind of informal way of being.”
The band, made up of 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.
“Of course, if I sing old time bluegrass confessional songs, I do believe most of the things,” explained White, who specializes systemic theology and Thomistic metaphysics, “but I think we understand that we’re not proposing it in the same time, place and way.”
“We’re actually appreciating their faith. But we’re also looking at it as people who have a different theological take on things often in continuity, but also with some differences,” he said.
For example, White pointed out, there are both joyful and sorrowful mysteries in the recitation of the rosary.
“I think one of the lessons from that is that love of God is beyond the distinction between joy and sorrow,” he said. “I mean, if we can love God at all, we’re going to love God in joy and in sorrow because both are part of life.”
“And so, because bluegrass music kind of humbly expresses the ordinariness of life, there’s a lot of joy in it and a lot of sorrow. And that’s kind of perfect for Catholic sensibilities, because it’s kind of the acceptance of everything human,” White said.
“This is music that people created in their backyards, in their kitchens, in their living rooms on Saturday nights. And it comes out of ordinary experience,” he said.
“We like to joke that in bluegrass music, the three main themes are God, murder and unrequited love,” White said, “and that the best bluegrass songs have all three in them.”