There are two primary schools of thought on who the Father of Country Music is. One asserts that it’s The Singing Breakman Jimmie Rodgers. Another attributes A.P. Carter of The Carter Family. But Woody Guthrie at least deserves an honorable mention, even if he’s more closely associated to the folk side rural American music. A native of Oklahoma, Woody has certainly had an outsized influence on Red Dirt and other country music strains. Combine that with how Celtic folk is one of the foundational building blocks of country music, and a concept record combining Celtic punk band Dropkick Murphys with Woody Guthrie compositions sounds like some cool fusion.
Cut the album in Tulsa near Woody’s birthplace, and recruit Evan Felker of the Turnpike Troubadours and Nikki Lane to contribute, and you sweeten the pot even more. Some became worried when Dropkick confided that this album was recorded acoustically. Oh but don’t you worry, ample energy, and blood and guts made it into these recordings. This is not a folk or country album. It’s a Dropkick Murphys album first and foremost. But the folk and country inflections are what make it unique and interesting.
Listening to the opening song “Two 6’s Upside Down” you think, “Damn, that could be a country song” since it’s about incarceration. But these are still Woody Guthrie lyrics delivered with the signature Dropkick Murphys Celtic attitude and attack. Themes like imprisonment and the plight of the working man were the stuff that Merle Haggard and Johnny Paycheck made their career on, and this album has a lot to say about workers rights and wealth inequalities as to be expected with Woody Guthrie material.
Though its most certainly true in certain respects that the words of Woody Guthrie still resonate with relevancy today, they were also written during a distinctly different time. In Woody Guthrie’s era, fascists had taken over the entirety of the European continent. These days, a fascist can be someone you simply have a tacit disagreement with on Twitter. Where in Woody’s time, workers were dying in industrial accidents at an alarming clip, these days workers rights often revolve around working from home, and resolving microaggressions from bosses who refuse to use preferred pronouns.
That’s not to say that workers don’t deserve better rights, and that the robber barons of yore don’t have comparative counterparts to today’s business and tech oligarchs controlling obscene amounts of wealth and power. But some of the verbiage and inflammatory attitude found in these songs comes across as a bit archaic, especially some of the sloganeering around unionization for anyone who’s watched a Martin Scorsese film, or episodes of The Sopranos that illustrate how some unions don’t stop the exploitation of workers, they just place it in the hands of a different set of sleazeballs.
But the spirit and passion with which Woody Guthrie approached his causes is done justice on this album by the Dropkick Murphys and their collaborators. You feel the fervor in songs like “Ten Times More” and “All You Phonies” that come from a time when the common man was dealt with like chattel by the ruling class, and the punk attitude that underpins all things Dropkick Murphys is here full throat. But there is also a sweeter moment when they’re joined by Nikki Lane for the understated Celtic folk-styled “Never Git Drunk No More.” Similar to “Two 6’s Upside Down,” it contains writing that would make for a good country song too.
Moreover though, This Machine Still Kills Fascists it’s just a fun record. It’s a good driving record, a good listening record, it gets the blood pumping, the foot pounding, and the fist waving. It has the perfect attitude for blowing off steam, and a populist message in a period that just like Woody’s, the gulf between the haves and the have nots is completely out of kilter, despite the ease of modernity. Some of the words and modes may be a little deprecated, but the passion cuts through and delivers a punch.
The roots and brambles of all traditional music tend to intertwine, and gravitate toward the universal plight of poor, agrarian, and working people, even crossing oceans and bridging continents and eras. Along with delivering a record of kick-ass music, the Dropkick Murphys present an illustration of how all of these roots genres are cohorts, and in a way that is enjoyable to digest. Doing this while interpreting Woody Guthrie songs—including some previously unheard and curated by the family—couldn’t have been easy. But the Dropkick Murphys made it sound like it was while having a hell of a good time in the process.
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