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Carry on, my wayward sons 

Kansas rebels Split Lip Rayfield return to the road

Split Lip Rayfield: Just like a Gillian Welch song, except - much, much louder.
  • Split Lip Rayfield: Just like a Gillian Welch song, except much, much louder.

They've shared stages with everyone from Nashville Pussy to Dolly Parton, artists who are musically, if not anatomically, miles apart.

They helped pioneer an insurgent thrash-grass movement that's inspired numerous punk bands to abandon their electric instruments and connect with their inner rednecks.

And in February 2007, they said farewell to longtime bandmate Kirk Rundstrom, who, after a yearlong battle, died of esophageal cancer. For the remaining members of Split Lip Rayfield, what followed was an uncharacteristic silence.

"We all took a lot of time just to regroup personally," says SLR's banjo player, Eric Mardis. "It was a really devastating loss, obviously, with Kirk creatively and sonically and across the board. And it was no small decision to continue. But I think the consensus was that that's what he would have done, and that's what he would have wanted. It's something that he poured so much of his life into, he wouldn't want it to stop."

Rundstrom's death was a blow not only to the band, but also to its devoted fans, who felt a strong connection to the wild-eyed, perpetually beaming guitarist. (Sure, there's that whole Billy Joel "Only the Good Die Young" thing, but sometimes you've got to wonder: Why not Dashboard Confessional?)

Even today, with Mardis, mandolinist Wayne Gottstine and bassist Jeff Eaton posting new songs to the band's MySpace page, the trio has yet to remove Rundstrom from its list of group members.

A band that routinely shares vocals and songwriting (resulting in such classics as "Redneck Tailgate Dream" and "Just Like a Gillian Welch Song"), Split Lip Rayfield arose from the ashes of Rundstrom's electrically inclined, pleasantly named Scroat Belly in 1995. But it took a year or so for the Wichita, Kan., act to find its purely acoustic sound.

"We were screwing around with the gas-tank bass, and I was trying to figure out the banjo," says Mardis, a fluent guitarist who was brought in to replace the band's original banjo player. (FYI, the body of Eaton's bass is indeed a gas tank "a '70s Grand Marquis or LTD is the best we can figure" and its sole string is borrowed from a weed wacker. No one knows why.)

"We got to New York and did some busking in Manhattan," recalls Eaton of the fateful, all-acoustic street performance, "and it was like we weren't playing the same songs. So it was a big, happy accident, really."

One decade and five albums later, SLR took to the road one last time with Rundstrom, who'd come to realize that his chemo treatments weren't working and that this would most likely be his last opportunity to tour.

"It was great and scary at the same time," says Mardis of the tour. "It was very emotional."

For the foreseeable future, the band is leaving the guitarist role vacant, though Mardis and Gottstine do pick up the instrument for a few songs.

"We decided to forego the guitar and just kept the banjo, mandolin, bass format," says Mardis, "which allows me and, I think, other people to still hear the Kirk in the air."

bill@csindy.com


Split Lip Rayfield, with Creating a Newsense
Business of Art Center's Venue 515, 515 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs
Thursday, Aug. 21, 7 p.m.
Tickets: $20 in advance, $25 at the door, 18-plus; 322-6786 or thebac.org.

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