Teller Family Finds Friendship, Fraternity in Love of Music
Date published: Oct. 26, 2018
Growing up in a half-Irish Catholic family in Cincinnati, the seven Teller children
knew a household full of music. Every year, their parents would host a huge party
with music at its center; each child was required to first learn to play the piano,
then could branch out to other instruments if they so chose.
“We aren’t classically trained,” explained Lucy Teller, BA ’19. “But we all love music.
Our dad would play the piano and sing folk songs, then my brother started playing
guitar.” Lucy was largely inspired to learn guitar herself by Taylor Swift, one of
her favorite musicians; she got one of Swift’s songbooks when she was 13 and learned
it all by heart.
Lucy has three older brothers who are all UD alumni, but two are also a different
type of brother — specifically, Dominican friars. These two brothers, it just so happens,
like Lucy have used the love of music instilled during childhood by their family to
become musicians and produce music of their own.
The summer after his sophomore year at UD, Brother Simon (Will) Teller, BA ’13, and
some friends traveled to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, with
the simple intention of being street performers, which in this tourist town is a completely
legitimate occupation. Originally the group was planning to focus on just juggling,
but ultimately they began playing music as well; Brother Jonah (Micah) Teller, BA
’11, joined them when he happened to be passing through. Back at UD, Brother Simon
and his friends formed the band the Stillwater Hobos and returned to Asheville three
summers in a row; one summer, they made thousands of dollars simply juggling and playing
music for tourists.
At UD, the culture centered largely around playing music in the Old Mill woods on
Friday nights; once the Stillwater Hobos were formed, they also performed at events
such as Battle of the Bands and Mallapalooza. Lucy sang onstage with them at one of
these events. For her, it wasn’t just the music she enjoyed, but the actual performance.
She herself has not ever been in a particular band at UD, but she has participated
in Battle of the Bands every fall and Mallapalooza every spring; individual artists,
she explained, come together to play.
Brother Jonah entered the Dominicans in 2013. During his novitiate (the first year),
he began taking bluegrass guitar lessons from Rick Hayes, a local musician and luthier
who also had a recording studio. Hayes also began teaching Lucy (then a senior in
high school). After graduating from UD in December of 2013, Brother Simon moved home
for several months before entering the seminary, spending that spring partly in Cincinnati
working and partly in Asheville playing music with the Stillwater Hobos. Lucy and
Brother Simon played music semi-frequently together at home. Ultimately, Hayes helped
Lucy — while still in high school — record an album.
This E.P. featured one cover and the rest original songs composed by Lucy; though
these particular songs bring back a lot of teenage angst for her, her love of songwriting
has persisted, and she still writes frequently; similarly, when at home she spends
as much time in the studio as she can. Her musical tastes have shifted and developed
over the years in regard to both what she writes and what she listens to; her current
favorite band is Dawes because they are skilled musicians who write beautiful lyrics,
but she also writes and sings a lot more pop music than she used to; not unlike her
brothers, her taste used to tend more toward folk and Americana.
“I’ve learned a lot about human interaction by listening to my favorite artists,”
she said. “It’s good to hear perspectives from music; nothing is too little to write
about. Music is a way to tell what I’m feeling, and every part of every day has to
have some kind of music; every memory has a specific song attached — road trips, studying,
moments with friends — it’s part of every second of our daily lives. Rick has been
a huge mentor to me because we share this love.”
Upon entering the Dominicans, Brothers Simon and Jonah discovered a shared love, too,
with the other friars of bluegrass and folk music.
“When we entered the order, we expected to give up a lot of things,” said Brother
Jonah. “It was a delightful surprise, then, that music didn’t end up being one of
“In college, music was very central to lasting, deep friendships; it was a real source
of friendship and joy,” said Brother Simon. “The same is true in religious life. It’s
a joy to play together; it draws us together as a community.”
As the brothers explained, music is for them an expression of fraternal life, but
on a larger scale, it is a naturally unifying power.
“People want to sing together,” they said. “It’s a moving experience and an incarnation
of unity in faith; we can extend an offer of faith through music. When we play in
public, we can get past people’s defenses, slip in the back door. Words get in, subconsciously,
and people become open to reflection.”
The bluegrass/folk music group the Teller brothers play in with eight other friars
from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., is “The Hillbilly Thomists”
(the name referencing a quote from Flannery O’Connor in which she referred to herself
as such). After its release by Dominicana Records, their self-titled album, “Hillbilly
Thomists,” quickly became the No. 1 best-selling folk-music album on Amazon. Its 12
songs, which include bluegrass classics, folk standards and Scotch-Irish instrumentals,
feature banjo, fiddle, guitar, washboard and the bodhrán, an Irish drum. There are
well-known tracks such as “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” “What Wondrous Love Is
This” and “Amazing Grace,” as well as some original compositions. You can find the
album on Dominicanjournal.org, Amazon.com or iTunes, and proceeds support the Dominican
student brothers in Washington, D.C.
The Hillbilly Thomists think it’s possible they’ll record another album.
“It depends on what’s practical, what’s best for the Order,” the Teller brothers explained.
“Recording music takes a lot of time, and we’re also full-time students. We’ll take
it one step at a time and see where the Lord takes us. We’re happy to follow whatever
form conveying the Gospel might take, whatever doors the Lord opens.”
Lucy, meanwhile, will graduate from UD in May 2019, majoring in human and social sciences
with an art history concentration. In trying to determine her subsequent path, she
spoke with the professors in her department and was surprised when they urged her
to pursue a career in music.
“Their thoughtfulness and support of my music was unexpected,” she said. “Pursuing
a music career is my absolute dream; it’s not super easy, though, and you need several
lucky breaks. But they recognized that I wouldn’t be as happy or content in life if
I didn’t at least try.”
Her brothers, too, are very grateful for their time at UD. They love the school and
“It was a huge part of my life, of forming me — in both my intellectual and cultural
formation,” said Brother Jonah.