Story to Song - Flannery O'Connor's Continued Influence on Songwriters

Story to Song – Flannery O’Connor’s Continued Influence on Songwriters

Have you heard yet about the recent hit album put out by the Dominicans of the Province of St. Joseph? Released under the band name of the “Hillbilly Thomists,” it is currently sitting at #6 on Billboard’s best-selling bluegrass albums list. The ensemble is comprised of 10 Dominicans, 2 of whom are priests, who are also skilled musicians. The album features a folk/bluegrass aesthetic and is largely comprised of well-worn and loved Southern Gospel standards.

Something particularly intriguing about the group is in their ensemble’s name – it was drawn from a quote from the Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, in which she described herself as a “hillbilly Thomist” in how she views the world and portrays it in her writings.

It is particularly suited to the group not just because it fits the group’s musical aesthetic and theological leanings (they are Dominicans singing bluegrass music, after all) – but it was also through the writings of Flannery O’Connor that the initial interest in the faith was sparked for Fr. White, one of the founding members of the band. This led to his eventual conversion to Catholicism. Talk about the power of evangelizing through beauty – it works even from across the grave!

The Hillbilly Thomists – Listen on Spotify

This is not the first album to have been inspired in some way by Flannery O’Connor. The contrast between light and dark in her writing, the movement of grace throughout a character’s life, and her agility in turning a story on its head has inspired many songwriters.

A little digging reveals the impact her work has had on musical artists across the board – ranging from big names like the Irish band U2 (they went so far as to recognize her influence when accepting their 1987 Grammy award for the album Joshua Tree) to indie artists like Sufjan Stevens. Sufjan, in fact, wrote a song directly based on A Good Man is Hard to Find – one of her most well-known short stories. In this song Sufjan turns the story around and tells the story from the perspective of the Misfit. Bruce Springsteen was also inspired by the writer, and wrote his album Nebraska while reading her literary works.

Sufjan Stevens: A Good Man is Hard to Find – Listen on Spotify

U2: The Joshua Tree – Listen on Spotify

Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska – Listen on Spotify

We can and should delight in these works of art inspired by one of the most authentically Catholic voices in American literature in the 20th century. But also worth considering is the following question – what can we learn from this as fellow Catholic artists? Whether expressed in direct reference or implicit inspiration, the range of an authentically Catholic artist’s sphere of influence can be much, much greater than we expect. This is cause for inspiration and hope in our own pursuit of spreading the Gospel through art, music, and literature.

While I doubt O’Connor would ever have imagined she would inspire monks holding banjos or an Irish rock band through her literature, the fact remains that you never know who you are going to reach or inspire, whether you see it in your lifetime or in O’Connor’s case, over 50 years after your death.