The title track to Split Lip Rayfield’s most recent album, “I’ll Be Around,” is a warm, acoustic ballad about change, healing and loyalty.
Time passes quickly now and everything changes
I’m hoping that you’ll come to find
The pain is only fleeting
I know that we will meet again
But remember if you need me
I’ll be around
The three members of Split Lip Rayfield self-released “I’ll Be Around” in late 2008. It was the band’s first recording without Kirk Rundstrom, one of its founding members and, at least on stage, its manic, wild-eyed leader. Rundstrom died in February 2007, about a year after doctors told him he had terminal esophageal cancer.
In the months that followed his death, his surviving bandmates, Wayne Gottstine, Eric Mardis and Jeff Eaton, dealt not only with the loss of a dear friend — they also mourned what they expected was the end of their band.
“We figured it was over,” Gottstine said.
“I thought we were done,” Mardis said.
But time passed, things changed, the pain subsided and, five years later, Split Lip Rayfield is still around and as successful as it has ever been. Though each member admits things are different without Rundstrom, one thing hasn’t changed. It is still a butt-kicking band.
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Offers from a longtime touring companion and a cartoon channel kick-started the revival of Split Lip Rayfield.
“The Rev. Horton Heat was coming through Wichita and they asked us if we wanted to do a show with them,” Gottstine said. “About the same time, the Cartoon Network asked us to write some music for ‘Squidbillies,’ one of their Adult Swim shows.”
That was in 2008, about a year after Rundstrom had died.
Until that, the prospect of proceeding without him seemed unlikely and improbable.
“I thought it would be like Led Zeppelin going on without Robert Plant,” Mardis said.
It’s a fair comparison.
Rundstrom and Eaton were original members when the band formed in the mid-1990s. By the time the band released “In the Mud” in 1999, Gottstine and then Mardis had joined the band.
Split Lip became renowned for several qualities and traits: For Eaton’s bass, the Stitchgiver, which was fashioned from the gas tank of an old pickup truck and string from a string trimmer. For its music, a warp-speed blend of country, bluegrass and punk. And for its live shows, which showcased the band’s vocal and instrumental prowess and its feral energy.
Rundstrom was the wildest of them all, the tornado in the midst of so much thunder, wind and lightning. Aside from Eaton’s freaky bass, they played traditional bluegrass instruments — acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo — but they took the sacred genre by the ears and whipped it into something subversive and intoxicating.
Few bands swept its crowds into its own hellbent energy like Split Lip Rayfield. By the mid-2000s, the hard work was starting to pay off, in festival gigs and tours.
In February 2006, doctors gave Rundstrom the grim news about the source of his sore throat and the pain in his shoulder. In August of that year, months after the cancer was ruled inoperable, Gottstine, who had quit touring with the band in 2005, rejoined Split Lip for its farewell tour, which opened in Kansas City at Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club. Six months later, Rundstrom died in Wichita. He was 38. And with him went the band, or so everyone figured.
“I swore I wasn’t going to do it,” Mardis said. “But enough time went by, about a year. And then an opportunity came up. I was hesitant at first.
“But Jeff and I went to Wichita and sat on Wayne’s back porch and we all said, ‘Let’s roll the dice and see what it feels like.’ And surprisingly — or maybe not so surprisingly — it sounded good.”
“It was definitely kind of weird at first,” Eaton said, “but we’ve settled into it. It feels good to keep it going.”
Gottstine said: “We missed Kirk terribly, obviously, but it still sounded like us. Once we get it going, it’s still super-fun to play with this band.”
The band’s many fans welcomed its return and under the same name, for the most part.
“Most people were pretty supportive,” Gottstine said. “Some places we go we had to rebuild another audience, and for a while we might have lost a friend or two over it, but those people don’t have to live in our shoes.”
“The first show we did without Kirk, I was a little apprehensive and curious about how people would react,” Mardis said. “The crowd was way into it. I think they were glad we’d come out of the darkness and started writing and kicking around new songs.
“I think it honors Kirk more than it would if we just let the whole thing fade into the ether. It helps his legacy survive, and I really think it’s what he would have wanted.”
The band made adjustments to its live shows. Mardis and Gottstine took up the acoustic guitar, Rundstrom’s instrument, and all three say they stepped up the energy levels a bit to fill the void.
“I think we all realized that we had to put forth a little more,” Eaton said. “I felt like I had to harness some of that energy that had been lost and try to lay it out there every night.”
“I don’t know if it’s a cognitive choice, but over the past few years, I’ve been a lot more extroverted on stage than I used to be,” Mardis said.
Split Lip also adjusted its set list significantly, which the band likened to “flying in a missing-man formation.”
“With a few exceptions, and just recently, we don’t play Kirk’s songs, mostly out of respect to Kirk,” Mardis said.
“And we wanted to avoid being our own tribute band. So we do the songs Wayne and Jeff and I wrote or sing. We thought it would be weird to jump out there and bust out the sets we played with Kirk. If anything feels weird or real different, it’s that we cut like a third or half of what you’d call our ‘hits.’ ”
Brett Mosiman, head of Pipeline Productions in Lawrence, which manages Split Lip, said the band navigated a tough and delicate transition successfully.
“There was some thought over the years of whether they should consider adding another member, but that never felt right,” he said. “There was a time during the Kirk era when Wayne didn’t go on the road with the band (and) that set a precedent that three of them could deliver a good show.
“Certainly, Kirk was the firebrand and the visual epitome of Split Lip back in the day, but after they took that hiatus and then got back together, people were so excited to see them that it didn’t matter that it was different. And it is different: the songwriting is different and the live show is a little different. But the core of Split Lip is there. And they sure didn’t lose any fans over it.”
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The members of Split Lip Rayfield have busy lives outside the band. Gottstine helps his wife run Tanya’s Soup Kitchen, a restaurant in Wichita.
“I’m the bookkeeper, bill-payer, fix-what’s-broken, maintenance guy,” he said. “My kid just graduated from high school and is on his way to KU, so I’ve got to work my butt off.”
He just launched another music project, the Split Livers, a duo with Danny Barnes of the Bad Livers, a band that inspired Split Lip.
“The Bad Livers preceded us in this genre,” he said. “Danny called me about doing a project together. We do my Split Lip stuff, some Bad Livers stuff and we both do solo stuff. It’s like a variety show.”
Eaton runs a screen-printing shop in Lawrence called Pride of Gumbo. When he’s not on the road, Mardis, who lives outside of Lawrence, is a full-time dad.
“I have three kids under age 12, so it keeps me hopping pretty good,” he said.
But Split Lip has become everyone’s primary job.
“Other than waiting tables or selling guitar strings, the band is my best option for a career,” Mardis said.
It has become a better option over the past several years because Split Lip has continued to improve and evolve, as musicians and a business, he said.
“I know I’ve gotten a hell of a lot better,” he said. “I was happiest with my banjo playing on ‘I’ll Be Around’ than on any other record. I’m happy to say none of us has plateaued on our instruments. We all keep moving forward as musicians.”
Its touring agenda has improved, too, and has recently included some of the top bluegrass and summer music: Del McCoury’s DelFest, Camp Euforia, the High Sierra Music Festival, the Stagecoach Festival and Wakarusa.
“As far as being a business, the band is more successful than ever,” he said. “The festivals we’re playing, the offers we’re getting, the gigs we’re doing: It feels like we’ve broken into new territory.”
“Their stock is definitely up, as high as it’s ever been,” Mosiman said. “They remain strong out there on the road.”
The Grassacre show will be Split Lip’s final local show for a while. The band plans to take a break from the heavy touring (about 150 shows a year, Mardis said), start making another record and then hit the road again. In other words, it plans on being around for a while.
“In spite of everything we’ve been through, personnelwise and emotionally and otherwise, this band has risen from the ashes,” Mardis said. “We haven’t shed who we are or what we used to be. It’s a different band from when we were a four-piece, but it’s still a kick-ass band.”Saturday
Split Lip Rayfield headlines the Missouri Chainsaw Grassacre on Saturday at Crossroads KC, 417 E. 18th St. The lineup also includes Cornmeal, Sons of Fathers, Deadman Flats, Truckstop Honeymoon and Grass Crack. Show time is 3 p.m. Tickets are $21.50 to $61.50.