Split Lip Rayfield: Fast, Rough and Loud

By: Sarah Hagerman

Split Lip Rayfield by Ryan Hendrix
It's one of those November nights in Austin where the chill catches you off guard, but inside the Continental Club the heat has forced us to stuff our jackets into all available nooks and crannies. It's a dense crowd to tussle through to the bar and the bottles and empty glasses are piling up near the front of the stage, and, glancing around at the crowd, the effects of the booze are taking their toll. A gentleman behind me yells, "Kansas!" every so often without discernable provocation, and a woman dances on top of a nervously narrow counter against the wall, her hair hanging in her face as she shimmies without inhibition. In the front, concertgoers sloppy with cathartic joy are hanging on every word, some waving their arms like they are at an unholy revival, inspired to shake loose in whatever wicked way they deem fit to the undiluted acoustic aggression. There are acoustic bands kicking around bluegrass and country with a measure of rough belligerence, but then there's Split Lip Rayfield.

Now fourteen-years-old, the gas tank bass named Stitch Giver was originally intended as a washtub bass. That splendid hunk of DIY instrumentation on which Jeff Eaton drives the pulse of their sound with taped up fingers was conceived during a summer he spent in Kansas City.

"It's been rebuilt probably ten times," he reflects. "I've had to redo the neck several times and all kinds of crap. What it is now is nothing like it was then. Now it sounds completely different. You know, it's a twenty-five dollar instrument with 300 dollars worth of electronics hooked up to it." An unglamorous, battle scarred creature, it nevertheless possesses loads of salty charm. SLR has similarly crafted a space where barbed punk and down-home Americana collide in off kilter grappling matches that lay waste to the dance floor. But, as Eaton explained, looking back to 1995 when the band started, "There was really no intention of making it a band in the first place. These guys [Wayne Gottstine (mandolin) and Kirk Rundstrom (guitar)] had this band, Scroat Belly, and I was like their merch dude. Then, I made this weird bass for fun and it just kind of took off on its own."

Rundstrom & Eaton - SLR 2001 by Anne
Talking to Eaton, Gottstine and Eric Mardis (banjo) before the Continental Club show – all straight-shooting, unpretentious guys with a hearty sense of humor – it's apparent they've been through the sort of lineup shake-ups, real world how-we-gonna-pay-the-rent concerns and hard-living that most bands reaching the decade and a half mark have experienced. But in 2006, they were faced with the news that Rundstrom had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. After an over year-long battle, during which Rundstrom outlived the doctors prognoses and bravely got himself back to the stage as soon and as often as he physically could, he passed on February 22, 2007 (please see our 2006 feature for insight into Kirk's fight as well as some first-person discussion with him). In the wake of losing a beloved friend and a source of musical inspiration, the remaining three members also had to at some point face the difficult question of the band's future. A few months after Rundstrom's passing, what Gottstine described as, "a series of opportunities," were presented to the band:

"A friend of mine did some work for the Cartoon Network and he hooked me up with the Squidbillies and they wanted some music done, so I called the guys [together]. And simultaneously while this was happening, Reverend Horton Heat wanted us to open for him. So, we mulled it over, jammed a little bit and did the projects for the Squidbillies and thought, 'Hell, it still kind of sounds like Split Lip.' So we started playing again. It seemed like [the right thing]. I don't know, at that point I was... a mess."

Opening for the Reverend when he played the Cotillion in Wichita on August 17, 2007, "It was pretty intense. I've never really been a nervous-before-the-show kind of guy," Gottstine admits, "but that night, our first show back, was in front of 800 people in our hometown. Pretty much felt like I had a rusty steak knife in my stomach or something. But once we went out there it seemed pretty comfortable; we were just able to throw it out there."

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