The jilted protagonist has been “living off of grits, whiskey and Moon Pies.” His man cave offers no refuge: “A hundred channels of nothing on the TV at 10. It’s like Diet Coke and original sin. … Now it’s a zombie town, there’s a lot of undead. They wander around looking underfed.”
But the chorus offers hope: “He makes a rich man poor; He makes a weak man strong. No more going wrong just to get along. I felt the force of the truth when they pierced His side. I saw the war eagle dive and I could not hide.”
It wouldn’t shock old-school country fans if this was a Johnny Cash song. But it was written by a banjo-playing Dominican from Georgia who has an Oxford theology doctorate and now leads the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Writing to the National Reso-Phonic Company, Father Thomas Joseph White said he likes to play this classic blues guitar “in my office looking out at the Roman Forum that’s 2,700 years-old.”
That makes sense in the Hillbilly Thomists, a “musical collective” of Dominicans, most of whom have Bible-belt roots. The band recently staged a concert in the Grand Ole Opry and, over the past decade, has recorded three albums of music that would sound at home at Appalachian fairs, but not in most church halls.
There’s a vital tie linking these songs to the life and work of this band of priests and brothers, said Father Simon Teller (who plays fiddle). Whether singing Appalachian hymns or their own original songs, the Hillbilly Thomists — dressed in the white habits of their order — keep returning to images of suffering, sorrow, eternity, hope, grace and redemption.
“We’re priests in the Dominican order and that kind of states our vision of the world and the faith and everything we do,” he said. “In our day job, we’re working a lot with people who are dealing with very concrete situations and have a lot of very concrete questions.”
“Holy Ghost Power,” for example, is “not sung from the voice of a clergyman. It’s sung with the voice of a man who’s living a very ordinary life that is going off the rails in a very ordinary way,” said Teller. “There’s a malaise there and he’s unsatisfied by the things of this world.”