Words by: Nathan Rodriguez
Split Lip Rayfield :: 08.21.06 :: The Bottleneck :: Lawrence, KS
What would you do if doctors gave you a terminal prognosis and anywhere from two to six months to live?
For Split Lip Rayfield front man Kirk Rundstrom, the answer was simple - fire the doctor and get the band back together.
Split Lip has been a fixture in the Midwest for several years, going through a number of incarnations recently. Mandolin player Wayne Gottstine had left the band for about a year, and while the trio of Rundstrom (guitar), Jeff Eaton (bass), and Eric Mardis (banjo) continued to play to packed houses, their concerts had a slightly different dynamic.
Split Lip Rayfield
(L to R): Eaton, Rundstrom, Mardis
Over the years, Split Lip traveled across the nation and earned new fans from California to New York, opening for artists like Del McCoury, Dolly Parton and Nashville Pussy. Despite the across-the-board rave reviews, it seemed the Kansas-based "punkgrass" group felt most comfortable near their old stomping grounds. In February 2005, JamBase interviewed the group at the Fox Theater in Boulder, and when asked about their favorite shows, they offered, "Playing New Years in Chicago was a lot of fun, but man, there's something to be said for rockin' out The Bottleneck back home for the folks that have been coming out for years."
You will soon discover
That the road
Ain't as easy as it seems
In January 2006, the perpetually playful mood of the band darkened with the announcement that Kirk Rundstrom had been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. This past June, Rundstrom underwent surgery to remove the cancerous cells when doctors detected cancer in the lymph nodes surrounding his aorta. It was considered inoperable, and it was at that time that doctors gave the "two to six months" prognosis.
Before this announcement, the quartet hadn't been communicating as frequently, as Gottstine points out: "There wasn't any bad blood or anything; it was just a matter of a lack of communication. It just took a phone call or two to change that."
Rundstrom got to work and, in his words, had to "relearn the guitar." His goal was non-negotiable: Get the band back together with the classic lineup and go on tour. As he explains, "Just getting my strength back was a huge deal. For two straight months I couldn't even get out of bed, so to be able to come back and play these shows, it's something I really appreciate being able to do."
For years, Rundstrom exuded the on-stage persona of a hard-livin' guy that feared nothing and no one. With wild eyes and a mischievous grin, you got the impression that this tattooed speed-guitarist was the kind of guy that would pick a fight with someone twice his size. Off-stage, he becomes friendly and engaging. As he noted, "It's kind of strange maturing under the spotlight." These days he is a bit more reflective on the whole situation: "Split Lip starting was a total accident. We just wanted free beer from the bars, but we started and wound up getting gigs out of it. For me, I love it; I love the work and I love the music. I just love my job, and I'm grateful that I'm not stuck in bed again. I'm very, very grateful that I get to play a show tonight because for a while it didn't look like that would happen again. It's been a rough climb back, and I still have to be careful to not wear myself down."
Split Lip Rayfield
(L to R): Rundstrom, Eaton, Mardis
Not wearing yourself down seems directly at odds with the on-stage antics of Split Lip Rayfield. The group is revered for its high-energy picking, so when word came out that the band was getting back together for "one last tour," reactions ranged from stunned to speechless.
Rundstrom & Eaton by Tobin Voggesser
As Rundstrom casually comments, "We have fans all over America, and I just wanted to say 'Hi' to everybody. I've just gotta be real careful and rest a lot. After shows, I won't hang out, I'll go straight to bed. I've been taking good care of myself and made a lot of lifestyle changes – just being a lot healthier." He has also taken a leap of faith and is experimenting with alternative medicine: "Drinking lots of water, doing acupuncture, IVs of Vitamin C – the hope is that it fights off the cancer cells. You boost up your immune system so the body fights it naturally."
Getting Back Together
The quartet has an undeniable chemistry in their live performances. Their remarkably tight musicianship has earned them arguably the most diverse fan base in music. As Rundstrom notes, "We have just wonderful fans - a really diverse crowd from punk-rockers to bikers to suits and bluegrass people. Fans that appreciate our songs seem to be a more educated group of listeners. They don't really rock out to Mariah Carey. That's great if you're into it... I love that – but that type of thing isn't for me."
Split Lip Rayfield by Tobin Voggesser
The best artists are able to tear down the barriers of genre and can appeal to an array of people with a variety of tastes. Split Lip's members are no different, and in their time away from the Lip, Rundstrom created three solo albums and explored prog-rock while Eric Mardis traded his banjo in for a spot in a jazz band.
When asked what he's been up to, Wayne Gottstine offers a slight grin and says, "Making candles."
I bite, "Really?"
After enjoying a good laugh, he shakes his head and continues, "Naw... first I got a job at Raytheon aircraft company, and that was an incredibly fantastic way to battle off the depression I was feeling after leaving the band - by chaining myself to a 400-ton machine that will chop your hand off at any given moment. So they switched me over to a machine that will daintily cut your hand off. So I had to quit that, and it felt fantastic. Now I play a lot of guitar." Gottstine was able to forego teaching guitar to his students for a few weeks, and suddenly Split Lip Rayfield was poised for a unique farewell reunion tour.
So Far, So Good
The fans are excited and super-positive about the whole thing. –Eric Mardis
It didn't take long to recapture the sound and spirit. "It was like we were never apart," said Gottstine. It only took a couple hours, as Mardis explained, "We had two full band rehearsals where everyone was available. Geography was between us – about 130 miles, and with jobs and everything, it was tough to meet up. But it felt really damn good getting back together, and it all came back pretty quickly."
Split Lip Rayfield by Tobin Voggesser
Hard-core fans have flocked from afar to the shows this tour. Each night has sold out, and Gottstine recalled the opening performance: "The first show... the emotions of the crowd – everyone was so concerned. They were also happy that I came back, but the positive outpouring from everyone was incredible. Just the anticipation was so high we wanted to be able to justify it. When it all finally came together and worked, it was just this collective sigh of relief."