Local Heroes: Celtic Punks

Feeling out their Scots-Irish roots, Cutthroat Shamrock play some rockin' drinking music

The members of Knoxville's Cutthroat Shamrock are, by most reckonings, a little rough around the edges. Typically shod in heavy black boots, laden with extraneous body jewelry and copiously stenciled with tattoos, they could stand in as most any band of throwback American punks, save for the fact that the rest of their fashion sense posits them just as readily as a gang of working-class knockabouts from somewhere on the British Isles—open vests and herringbone tweed caps, thickly matted beards and mutton chops that could stave off a chilly morning wind blown in from the Celtic Sea. Multicultural in the most wanton sense, the Shamrock bunch look fit to be tossed out of respectable establishments of every nationality.

Core Shamrocks Derek McRotten and Ben Whitehead are American boys of Scots-Irish descent who grew up in Sevier County, where they heard bluegrass and traditional mountain airs—mutant offspring of Celtic music, carried overseas and resettled in the rugged midlands of a New World—on the back porches of friends' and relatives' houses. In their rebellious teen years, both gravitated to punk rock, McRotten to bedrock American hardcore like Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys, Whitehead to second wavers like Rancid.

Having tried their own hands at punk in a handful of local outfits, the two restless young men sought to marry roots with rock instincts. "After playing in some punk bands, I wanted to do something different," says McRotten. "We started looking into heritage. We had no idea that other bands, like the Pogues or the Dropkick Murphys or whoever, were doing the same kind of thing. We just did some exploring on our own, from the bluegrass that our families played then back through traditional Irish bands like the Chieftans or the Dubliners."

"Bluegrass originally came from a bunch of drunks in Ireland, from the Scots-Irish settling in the Appalachians," Whitehead says. "If you listen to, say, old Carter family records, and then to someone like the Chieftans, then the connection is as plain as day. You just replace the twang with a brogue, and it's almost the same thing."

McRotten and Whitehead founded Cutthroat Shamrock as a duo, trading off duties on acoustic guitar, mandolin, and bouzouki at their inaugural gig on St. Patrick's Day in 2003. Soon thereafter, they added a few friends—fellow former punks Guido (stand-up bass), Suavo (drums), and Johny Hyena (percussion)—to fill out the Shamrock sound.

The band gelled quickly, and the Shamrocks have since produced two potent albums of devil-may-care drinking music (with a third on the way), tradition-minded anthems seemingly imported straight from the Emerald Isle, then infused with the thrashing energy and frenetic tempos of stateside punk rock. "We learned from bands like the Chieftans, but you can't really compare us to that stuff, because it's way too pretty," Whitehead says.

Veteran of Knoxville hardcore outfits The Pigs and MFA, McRotten says many of the locals who came out to see his former bands turned up their pierced noses at the notion of coming out to watch an all-acoustic Irish band. "Some of them thought we were selling out," he says. "Others said, ‘Yeah, it's OK. You're doing it because you need the paycheck.' What they didn't realize was we were basically trying to bring back a forgotten music. We still weren't getting paid."

But some of the old Knoxville fans eventually came around, says McRotten, and the years since have been gratifying, as the Shamrocks have nurtured a new audience for their free-flowing and thoroughly un-self-concious hybrid of Celtic and punk. The past few months have seen the band play big festivals like Bristol's Rhythm and Roots Reunion, which drew a record 65,000 people, and the Shamrock Festival in Washington, D.C., which saw attendance of more than 30,000 fans of traditional Irish music.

"We get kids who see us play who say, ‘I'm going to bring my parents next time,' and parents who see us and say, ‘I'm going to bring my kids next time,'" Whitehead says.

But some things haven't changed. Just as was the case at some of those early Knoxville punk rock shows, the crowds at Cutthroat Shamrock gigs can "get pretty rowdy sometimes," Whitehead admits.

"We might have been hesitant to say that a couple of years ago," he adds. "When you're trying to get a gig, and club owners think you might have a bunch of rowdy dancing drunks coming in, they're not sure what to do. Now our name is out there, and they know what to expect. They just stock the bar double, and have us come on in."