“Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”
St. Thomas Episcopal Church at 815 E. 2nd St. in downtown Elizabethton has certainly taken Psalms 150 to heart. While nearly all churches have included a piano in their worship services and many have added an organ, St. Thomas has included a bluegrass band. The “Doe River Ensemble” is the parish’s bluegrass group.
In announcing a musical celebration of the coming of summer for the church’s June 19, 2022, worship service, the church’s rector, Father Timothy Holder, said people ask him, “‘Who are all of these fine musicians?’ I answer ‘The Doe River Ensemble.’ They ask, ‘Well, who’s that?’ I answer, ‘Whoever shows up!’” Holder then said, “So everyone bring their fiddles, guitars, mandolin and singing voices, ready to spread a little Appalachian sunshine Sunday morning from this beautiful home of the faith, St. Thomas.” One of the songs the congregation sang that morning was “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
Despite what Holder said, people did not have to bring their musical instruments. Near the front entrance to the church stand a guitar, banjo and fiddle ready to be picked up and played in accordance with Psalms 150.
While everyone attending the church is encouraged to make a joyful noise, professional musicians have also been included in the church’s musical celebration. Thomm Jutz and Tim Stafford normally perform at Down Home when they come to the Tri-Cities, but last Christmas season, they came to St. Thomas to celebrate “Evensong with Christmas Lessons and Carols.” Jutz is a German-born American singer, songwriter, producer and guitarist based in Nashville. He is the winner of the International Bluegrass Association’s Songwriter of the Year Award. His songs have been recorded by John Prine, Balsam Range, Mac Wiseman and more. He co-wrote the top two singles of 2016 listed on the Bluegrass Today Airplay Chart.
Stafford is a Grammy Award-winning guitarist, songwriter, author and singer, two time IBMA Songwriter of the Year, former member of Alison Krauss and Union Station and founding member of Blue Highway.
Other musicians have performed at St. Thomas. Thomas Cassell, Josiah Benjamin Nelson and Tray Wellington of East Tennessee State University’s Appalachian Studies have led worship at the church. The church is giving back to these musicians. Nelson was recently named the recipient of the church’s first Appalachian music scholarship. Nelson has begun his master’s program in Appalachian studies at ETSU.
Bluegrass music should come naturally to Holder. He celebrates the fact that 10 generations of Holders have lived in Appalachia, many of them in Carter County. He grew up with the gospel songs of the Baptist church. But as he forged his way in the Episcopal Church, he first marched to a different beat. As a priest in Alabama, New Jersey and New York, Holder learned about the power of hip-hop. Holder said hip-hop and bluegrass are both about pride of culture and share many positive attributes and power.
While serving at Trinity Church in Morrisania, in the birthplace of hip-hop in the South Bronx, Holder saw the power of hip-hop to make religion relevant to young people. A fruitful ministry grew to have global impact. Holder became the editor of a series of books, including “The Hip-hop Prayer Book,” and a compact disc “And the World was Hip-hop.”
Holder was inspired to include his hip-hop experience in a thesis he was going to write for his Doctor of Ministry program at Virginia Theological Seminary. But that was where Holder would begin his full circle return to his roots. The finished product of his transition can be seen in the title of his dissertation: Celebrating the Music of Appalachia in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Tradition: Mission Evangelism, and Renewal.
With his scholarship completed, the church made the unusual assignment of returning Holder to his hometown to lead St. Thomas.
When he arrived, Holder found a church with membership decline suffered by many mainstream churches. The power of cultural music to renew a congregation was once again demonstrated to him at a midnight Christmas mass, and it was not hip-hop or bluegrass, but a unique jazzy style by church pianist Joey Hildebrand. The musician had the church completely in his spell and then went into Beautiful Star of Bethlehem. Holder said Hildebrand said his music was inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Just as in the South Bronx, Holder’s new church has also inspired some publications, including An Appalachian Hymnology, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Elizabethton Tennessee, The First Years, 2018-2020 and the Future and Appalachian Evensong, Then Sings my Soul.
The church’s bluegrass ministry has also been featured in The Living Church, a publication of the Living Church Foundation, rooted in the Epicopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion, which reaches communities as far away as Australia and New Zealand.