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Soul-filled strummin': Fr. Ziegler mixes old-time bluegrass with ministry

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"No more darkness, no more night. Now I'm so happy, no sorrow in sight. Praise the Lord, I saw the light."

The banjo twanged, and deep vocals, with a hint of Johnny Cash, sung the familiar Hank Williams lyrics.

Father John A. Ziegler is pastor of St. Patrick Church in Fredericksburg, but he also knows how to produce a toe-tapping, soul-moving recording. He's created two bluegrass gospel CDs and can be heard strumming his guitar and singing at parish festivals and fundraisers.

The musician with a special fondness for bluegrass is at home as pastor of the Spotsylvania County church, which Father Ziegler says still has a "country parish feel" to it. The Civil War's Battle of Chancellorsville took place in the county in 1863, and contiguous to the church are hundreds of acres of woodlands and rolling fields set aside by the National Park Service.

Growing up, Father Ziegler learned piano, accordion and guitar, but he said guitar was the "easiest to stick with" as he moved around. He is primarily self-taught, and the tunes of Williams, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Glenn Campbell and Gordon Lightfoot initially inspired him to delve deeper into guitar. Folk and country singer Norman Blake and guitar hero and folk legend Doc Watson later influenced his technique.

In Ohio for law school, Father Ziegler played during celebrations at houses and farms. While serving as an assistant district attorney in Dallas County, Texas, he befriended a fiddler, whom he jammed with whenever he could. Wherever he went, his guitar came too.

He played a diverse mix of music, including country, folk, pop, classical and bluegrass. Since being ordained in 1996, he's primarily played gospel bluegrass.

But it wasn't until about 12 years into his vocation, while pastor of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Colonial Beach, that Father Ziegler began playing music as a priest. At St. Patrick since 2010, he now performs with local musicians at four or five parish events yearly. Most recently he performed at the church's Labor Day Bluegrass Festival in September.

An all-acoustic form of American country music, bluegrass has roots in English, Irish and Scottish traditional music, as well as Appalachian tunes, blues, gospel and jazz. According to Smithsonian Folkways, the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, bluegrass first made an appearance in the Southeast United States, especially Virginia, in the mid- to late 1940s.

"Folks from this region have been singing these old favorites for generations," said Father Ziegler.

Parishioners enjoyed hearing the locally grown music, and so did his parents in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Whenever I came home to visit, my mother was always asking me to create a recording of it," he said. With the help of several musicians and professional recording artist Dale Adkins, who is also a banjo player, the priest recorded two CDs.

"They are very well done, and Dale said Nashville has nothing over his equipment," Father Ziegler laughed.

Donations for the CDs support the construction of a new St. Patrick church and middle school. So far they have raised more than $16,300.

Along with "I Saw the Light," songs include "In the Sweet By and By," "Are You Washed in the Blood" and "Cold Jordan."

Father Ziegler said the chance to play old-time bluegrass gospel, especially with like-minded musicians and parishioners, "has been a lot of fun."

He doesn't have much time for his "hobby," but he gets a lot of satisfaction out of playing and said he hopes it "brings peace to others."

Quoting part of Isaiah 38:20, he said: "We will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the Lord."

For Father Ziegler, that stringed instrument of choice is the guitar, and he's grateful for the opportunity to strum and pluck it on behalf of God.

Hear the music

To get a CD of Fr. Ziegler's gospel bluegrass recordings and help support the construction of St. Patrick's new church and middle school, call 540/785-5299.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015