Friday, February 19th, 2021

Hillbilly Thomists – Our Help is in the Name of the Lord

2.8% — the difference between a Leigh Bowery-inspired performance artist and a band of Dominican friars. Science!


John Pinto: [Owen Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums voice] “Well everyone knows that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is proof that a contemporary Flannery O’Connor adaptation would be a disaster. What the Hillbilly Thomists presuppose is… maybe it wouldn’t?”

Thomas Inskeep: A group of Dominican friars playing and singing bluegrass gospel isn’t gonna do it for everybody, admittedly, but damn — when the bluegrass is this good, what’s not to like? The genre has always been rooted in songs of worship, so the pairing makes sense — I mean, think about the one bluegrass album many people know, the 2000 Grammy-winning soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? There are a number of religious songs on that record. What’s so refreshing about this is that “Our Help is in the Name of the Lord” is an original song, not an oft-covered standard, and it’s really well-written. On top of that, these guys can play. This ticks all the boxes for me.

Jessica Doyle: Somebody is giving the Order of Preachers good advice on picking singles. The two main weaknesses of Living for the Other Side are the vocals, alternately too callow and too mannered, and the pacing, which for most of the album is on the slow side — encouraging, in that it suggests that the performers actually have found some peaceful reward in devoting their lives to rigorous religious contemplation, but disappointing to those of us unsaved souls who like a little more anarchy in our Americana. (My personal favorite of the non-“Our Help” tracks is the memento-mori-themed “You Will Still Walk Down the Line“: it’s jaunty and appropriately smug.) “Our Help” alleviates both those weaknesses by making the banjo the star of the show. It’s not going to leave you weeping in the aisles, but it’s a nice intersection of spiritual wonder and practical, physical music-making.

Juana Giaimo: For the last few months, I’ve been listening to a lot of artists who happen to be Christians. It wasn’t intentional, but now that we’re starting the second year of a pandemic, of course I wonder if it has to do with a deep desperation of knowing I don’t have that kind of faith, but subconsciously wish I could trust some spiritual force to get us out of this or give me a reason why we’re living it. In the past, I would have criticized Hillbilly Thomists just because I thought modern art should have no religion, but in 2021 I can appreciate its depth. The banjo, mandolin and fast drums give the lyrics a lighter tone and the chorus has great vocal work (the backing vocals first echoing the main ones and then fusing together to harmonize). It’s still a cry for help, but a fun one — and I want to believe they also had a laugh when they decided to make a music video dressed as priests doing priests’ things.

Katie Gill: Maybe it’s because I listened to two horribly over-processed Nashville country songs before this, maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for some good bluegrass, but there’s just something about this that hits me JUST right. Admittedly, the lead vocals are a bit weak and that break could be a little bit better but at this moment, I don’t really care. The guitar and mandolin are slick, the little touch of harmonies we get are grand, and the whole thing pushes forward with just the right amount of speed. At least for me, in this moment, this song hits the right spot.

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Whenever I return to listening to FM radio I am always overawed by the wealth of Christian contemporary stations. It feels as if there are more every time I check — they replaced my favorite hometown classic rock station (the one that leaned towards psychedelia rather than Boston) with something called “Positive, Encouraging 100.3” circa 2015– I never looked back. The music that plays on these stations is sterile — not more sterile than most adult contemporary, but sterile in a way that does not befit worship. I’m used to the many flavors of Jewish liturgical music, a set of styles that are at once stately and a little shaggy, like obelisks covered in well-loved moss. This bluegrass worship music captures some of that same energy, the inherent friskiness of making music for a God that is at once personal and unknowable. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and here the Thomists blow by it with sheer kineticism.

John S. Quinn-Puerta: I once sang in a choir for a John Michael Talbot concert at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in my hometown, so I think I have a good ear for what I’ve just now decided to dub Monastic Catholic Contemporary. MCC songs should be Psalms, the mix should be too vocal-forward, the vocalist should sound like they’re more used to a choral setting, and, most of all, they should feel entirely too earnest. On that front, this track succeeds. The Hillbilly Thomists commit to their robes hard (they’ve got to show some love for their bride, the Church), but that commitment belies some stiffness in their performance. The Scruggs-style banjo is the star of the song, but the stilted Psalm doesn’t lend itself well to an Appalachian wail. The rest of the instruments seem mixed in like an afterthought, with an over-reliance on the brushed snare rather than the ample rhythm provided by the guitar and bass, with spoons, a more traditional old-time instrument, only making their appearance in the last minute. The vocals leave much to be desired, shining in the harmonies of the titular chorus, but weak in the verse. They’re almost a bluegrass band, but these monks should spend a bit more of their cloister time jamming to really find their strengths. Regardless, one of the most fascinating parts of Catholic, and all religious musical traditions, is the way they grow and adapt. Bluegrass Gospel has long been in the realm of the revival tent, but perhaps Catholics could soon hear more mandolins at Mass. Were I still attending Mass, I’d be excited to hear a folk song instead of a chant. 

Alfred Soto: Solid as bluegrass, wan as a vocal showcase: the soul is willing, the flesh weak.

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One Response to “Hillbilly Thomists – Our Help is in the Name of the Lord”

  1. I feel like I’m more bearish on their skill as bluegrass musicians then everybody else, but I think I’ve heard so much flat picking that the guitar just sounds generic to me.