The Jester and Deacon and their commentariats have jumped all over Fr Edward Richard’s Bluegrass Mass. It’s not a new development at all, using this particular American genre for worship. While they didn’t write as much of it as chant, the early St Louis Jesuits had a few bluegrass songs, John Foley’s “Born Today” and “Mighty Lord,” and Tim Manion’s “Lord of Glory.”
A few comments on the genre. Bluegrass is a fairly wholesome style, maybe the most wholesome of the various pop music developments of the last century. Like the blues, there’s a humility in its mainstream lyrics–a feature that would seem to be appealing to many sensibilities of that sort, even Catholic ones. Also like the blues, it has an ancestry in American sacred music.*
As for actually playing bluegrass style, that’s a matter less for composition and more for an informed arranger. There are any number of contemporary songs that could be translated well into a bluegrass style. All you need are the instruments: banjo, as well as guitar, bass, mandolin, and fiddle. Last night the students planned “Though The Mountains May Fall” for 10PM Mass. That tune works as an uptempo bluegrass tune, but not when the instrumentation is piano, drum kit, guitar, and flute.
One comment on both sites suggested watching the Passion to bluegrass music. You’d get the same cognitive disconnect cranking up the “Halleluyah Chorus,” but I don’t think that mismatch disqualifies Dead European White Men’s music.
Some liturgical comments:
I noted that the congregation was taught the Mass parts in advance and they were using them before the “debut” event during local bluegrass festival. I thought the music was good, and probably would translate well to piano or a straight-up guitar group.
Fr Richard’s music page has some typos. The Gloria appears to have an adapted text from the new ICEL translation. I don’t think that’s going to fly in either the pre-implementation age or post-.
The composer speaks:
I’d been asked before — quite a few times, but until now I resisted. My idea was never ‘to go liturgical’ with this.
… Father Tim’s request was a bit more understandable. This is the area of the country where Bluegrass comes from; it is a big part of the Rhythm and Roots festival here. He (Father Keeney) told me, “You really need to do this. The people here need something Catholic that is part of the experience that goes on in our town.”
It seems the music long preceded the Mass. Composers have many motivations. As a liturgical composer, I rarely write something I wouldn’t foresee being sung at Mass or at a celebration of a sacrament or the Liturgy of the Hours. Any reticence I feel about a piece is usually connected to the lack of quality or my own dissatisfaction with my work.
More from the diocesan papaer:
Referring to his initial hesitancy about writing the Mass, Father Richard pointed out, “I’m sensitive to my position in the seminary and the church, and I don’t want people to be offended. But there are a lot of different expressions of the liturgy.”
At the seminary, he laughs as he imagines his students hearing about the Bluegrass Mass and saying, ‘Really? Father Richard, the guy who celebrates the Tridentine Mass everyday?’”
That would be my question. This interview on his web site describes his own musical history, a bluegrass interest that preceded his discernment for ordination, and a wider musical formation than scoffers might suspect.
The Mass is available here for listening.
* Realizing that for some sad Catholics, the only sacred music is their own, not anybody else’s