Split Lip Rayfield's Bluegrass Whirlwind
Since Kansas usually brings to mind flat prairies, 3.2 beer, college basketball dynasties, missile silos, Dorothy and Toto, and of course that awful Seventies band, you might not think there'd be much to do in Wichita. But with Boeing, Cessna, and Learjet, as well as McConnell Air Force Base all based there, the town boasts a thriving aerospace industry and solid economic base.
For heartland music enthusiasts, Wichita is home to a handful of clubs including Kirby's Beer Store, a venue roughly the size of the front of the Hole in the Wall. Kirby's, capacity 38 or so, has been known to cram 150 bodies into the club to see the Cows, Steelpole Bathtub, and Ethyl Meatplow. This little ol' Wichita dive also gave rise to Split Lip Rayfield.
Split Lip's manic take on bluegrass has been raising blisters on unprotected skin for some four years, countless medicine-show tours, and three albums now. Anyone who hasn't yet seen the quartet will be gape-mouthed that acoustic instruments can make that much racket and be played with such ferocity. Jeff Eaton's one-string bass, fashioned from a car gas tank, drives the songs -- making the idea of a drummer downright redundant -- as Kirk Rundstrom's guitar, Eric Mardis' banjo, and Wayne Gottstine's mandolin get sucked up into the sonic tornado.
The band's roots go back to Scroat Belly, a weird amalgam of Bill Monroe and Slayer. Starting in 1995, Scroat Belly eventually put out a couple of CDs before hanging it up. The band's breakneck pace and head-spinning tempo changes live on in Split Lip's arrangements, but as Rundstrom explains, burnout came fast.
"After a couple of years of playing to nobody on the road, it kind of fell apart, and everyone needed a break."
From there, it was logical for Rundstrom and company to pursue a more acoustic tack, which happened when Split Lip coalesced at the Winfield Music Festival, a bluegrass event conveniently held in the small Kansas town of Winfield.
"Even back in the Scroat Belly days, we always wanted to play acoustic," says Rundstrom. "Jeff made that damn bass, and everything fell around it. Acoustic music is huge in Kansas. There are so many parties and shit to go to, out at somebody's house -- y'know, pickin' parties. It's pretty damn fun, actually."
At one time, the word "bluegrass" conjured images of poker-faced geezers in matching Colonel Sanders ties, spinning laconic tales of train wrecks and dead relatives. Despite their traditional instruments and high-lonesome harmonies, Split Lip is far, far outside bluegrass' usual parameters. One reflection of the changing times is how readily they're accepted at festivals.
Equidistant to both coasts, Wichita's location puts it within easy driving distance to any number of cities. Though Rundstrom now lives in northern Virginia, the band has made good use of its strategic locale by touring relentlessly; spending 20 days a month on the road cuts down on the problems associated with one member living in another part of the country.
Capitalizing on Rundstrom's new locale, Split Lip's current tour leg finds them doing gigs up and down the Eastern seaboard with the Damnations TX. In fact, Rundstrom loves the van life so much that he's put together the Kirk Rundstrom Band, dragooning Mardis on pedal steel and lead guitar along with a crew of non-Split Lip folks.
"I love touring," he confesses. "And I want to do it more. I'd written a bunch of songs that didn't really fit in with Split Lip and wanted to play more than what I was doing, so I started another band."
Not that Split Lip is on the back burner -- not by a long shot. For the past several years, the band has meshed perfectly with Chicago alt.country indie Bloodshot and the label's high-octane stable. Though Scroat Belly's self-released debut, 1995's Great Alaskan Holiday, was "too brutal" for even the Bloodshot, once label reps got a taste of the Belly's live show, they signed on.
"They had no choice," laughs Rundstrom.
After Scroat Belly folded, Split Lip fell right into Bloodshot's open arms, releasing 1998's Split Lip Rayfield and 1999's In the Mud. Their next effort, Never Make It Home, is set for release this month.
Bloodshot's free parties at Yard Dog have become the stuff of South by Southwest legend, garnering their bands a rabid following in Austin. The Blacks, Waco Brothers, Meat Purveyors, Rico Bell, and their partners in crime have been ripping up the improvised stage behind the South Congress art gallery for a couple of years now. Not surprisingly, Split Lip has been planted foursquare in the middle of the mud, beer, bodies, and mayhem.
"South by Southwest has helped us out tremendously, and we really appreciate it," notes Rundstrom, who is once again bringing Split Lip to the annual music conference. "We've met so many great people there, club owners and everyone else, that as far as getting gigs, SXSW has helped us out more than anything we've ever done. Anything during the day that has free food and beer, that's what I'm about."
The Midwest does funny things to people. Some folks are content to stay there forever, go to their jobs, plow their fields, send their kids to school, and live the most contented middle-class lives imaginable. Others get so bored and restless they feel compelled to move to places like Texas, California, or New York just for some new stimuli. Then there's those who pick up instruments, play them like they were under the gun from the Devil himself, and write songs about whiskey, murder, pinball, whiskey, girls, hangovers, cars, and whiskey.
That's where Split Lip Rayfield comes from. It's easy to hear the desperation of a guy bent over the fender of a '68 Ford pickup in the front yard of his farmhouse, tools scattered about, knuckles bloody and grease up to his elbows. Sweating, cussing, half-drunk, he's trying to get that damn truck running so he can get to work tomorrow. Split Lip gets the truck running and floors it, spraying gravel and scaring the bejesus out of the kids.
Nope, we're definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Split Lip Rayfield plays a SXSW preview with tour buddies the Damnations TX Friday, Feb. 23, at the Continental Club.