In the Heart of Country Music in the Heart of the Country

by Jedd Beaudoin

10 September 2012

Jeff Eaton on his gas tank bass, playing with the Split Lip Rayfield band. Photo by
© Marla Keown found on Split Lip

Just Take a Mandolin and Add a Gas Tank Bass...

Three hours up the road from Wichita, the Kansas City based group the Starkweathers leaned heavily on traditional country while sprinkling in punk as envisioned by Joe Strummer and friends. The band was wildly rebellious with a political bent that came out in the tune “Burn the Flag”, which became a crowd favorite and epitomized the group’s politics. Named after teenaged spree killer Charles Starkweather, the band had an admittedly short life, enough that its small number of releases have largely escaped the grasp of all but a few obsessive music collectors and those who saw the band perform live.

By the end of the decade Kirk Rundstrom’s new project, Split Lip Rayfield, had begun to take off. He’d recruited longtime friend Jeff Eaton to play bass––in fact, gas tank bass––in the band and David Lawrence to perform banjo duties. Buoyed by an interest in bluegrass music––Winfield, Kansas, in relative proximity to Wichita, is home of the annual Walnut Valley Music Festival where one can hear a variety of music performed, including bluegrass and permutations thereof––and working closer to country’s roots, Split Lip Rayfield found purchase on the Wichita music scene and, somewhat quickly, beyond.

The group’s 1998 debut on the Bloodshot label saw Eric Mardis replace David Lawrence on banjo. Like Lawrence, Mardis was a gifted guitarist raised on a steady diet of heavy metal, science fiction, and role-playing games; he hailed from the greater Kansas City and had formed the Creek Bank Ghetto Boys, a similarly-minded band that would serve as the perfect outlet for his smart––and occasionally lovingly smart assed––lyrics.

Rundstrom received the lion’s share of the writing credits on the first SLR album, with songs such as “Outlaw”, “San Antone”, and “Flat Black Rag” (a co-write with Eaton) becoming staples of the band’s live shows. (“Flat Black Rag” is, in the words of Eaton, the band’s “Whiskey River”.) The record suffered from unevenness––Rundstrom’s material couldn’t always compete with cover tunes such as “Long Haul Weekend”, “Pinball Machine”, or “Tiger in my Tank” and the sequencing appears to have been assigned to the Random button on someone’s CD player––but there was a spirit behind the music, a sense of hard-nosed individualism and a healthy dose of the muscular danger that had also presided over Scroat Belly’s material.

For all its positive attributes the debut album still sounds mostly like guys raised on rock trying to play something else but come 1999’s In the Mud the focus shifted and the band that emerged was markedly improved, if still not perfected. Gottstine, Rundstrom’s partner in Scroat Belly joined up, adding warp-speed mandolin lines to the mix and serving as a more thoughtful foil to Rundstrom’s from-the-gut writing style. A cover of George Jones’ “Easy Street” was the only tune written by an outside hand and Gottstine offered “3.2 Flu”, a song that, under different circumstances could have—or perhaps still can––ignite country radio. Mardis contributed “In the Ground” and “Hounds”, which had as much in common with dirt roads and rednecks as they did with Deep Purple and head banging.

The novelty of the Eaton’s gas tank bass was a drawing point but the music itself captured the curiosity seeker’s attention. If Rundstrom was not a virtuoso guitarist he remained a consummate entertainer whose charisma supplanted whatever musical shortcomings he may have had. By the turn of the century the group’s live shows had attained mythological status, a reputation further cemented by the 2001 album Never Make It Home. Released in the early hours of that year, the record featured some of Rundstrom’s most interesting material, including “PB24SS” and “Record Shop”.

Gottstine’s titular cut as well as “Movin’ To Virginia” (Rundstrom relocated there for a time) and “Used to Call Me Baby” were increased evidence of a band that was on––or onto––something. Although Mardis contributed only one song, “Kiss of Death” (about his ability to destroy any automobile he owned––a trait some say he still holds), it remains one of his best compositions from the first Split Lip era. What the band had managed to do was fully marry elements of rock ‘n’ roll with country, bluegrass, and any detritus of punk rock that may have gone floating by.

The covers were varied––“Love Please Come Home” and “The Day the Train Jumped the Tracks” (the initial definite article was squeezed off the sleeve), written by band friend and Gottstine’s sometime partner in The Sluggos, Michael Carmody.

It’s often the mark of a band’s popularity that some have to haggle over what to call the specific brand of music––certainly early audiences came to hear Split Lip because the band was either opening for somebody else or because those in the audience personally knew the band and knew that whatever came out would be of a certain quality. Later, as an audience becomes greater in number but consequently represents more diffuse tastes, the standard questions about what to call––and what not to call––a band’s particular brand of music arise.

Not even the band could agree on what kind of music it had banged out across multiple albums and countless live shows––Gottstine met the question with discomfort; Rundstrom argued for acoustic rock ‘n’ roll, and Mardis at least once sided with fans who called it bluegrass. What few seemed to hone in on or talk much about was the obvious debt the group owed to country music, especially as evidenced in songs such as “Hundred Dollar Bill”, “Honestly” (“Honestly, I lied/and honestly I didn’t try/to love you much, today), “Used to Be”, and “Don’t Believe That You’re Someone”, all of which populated the group’s 2004 album, Should Have Seen It Coming.

The covers were completely tossed by then and only the best material had found its way onto the record––perhaps it was maturity settling in or the gift of having more time to craft the record. Somewhere around 2002 the band began an extended hiatus that may or may not have been an actual breakup––depending on which member you were to ask––but whatever it was, it served the quartet well. There was plenty of touring to come after the record’s release and tumult that not even the most weathered and weary musicians could not have seen.

In 2005, while the band was gaining momentum and earning high profile placement at major festivals, Gottstine left the band to spend more time with his family. The other three continued the incessant touring although that was not without its costs––in early 2006, during a quick run of gigs in Colorado, Rundstrom was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He spent months undergoing standard radiation and chemotherapy treatments and even underwent surgery, only to learn that his cancer, a scant four months after his diagnosis, was now inoperable.

By the end of the summer he was back on the stage. Gottstine had rejoined the band although talk of the future was a bit touchy, the group toured and played with a new ferocity. Scroat Belly even came out of mothballs for a series of shows. But at the start of 2007, it was apparent that Rundstrom was not well––the sets were getting shorter and shorter and he became increasingly more ill, finally passing in February.

Gottstine, Mardis, and Eaton regrouped by the end of that summer and emerged a year later with I’ll Be Around, featuring two of Mardis’s more mature compositions to date, the title track and “Aces High”. Gottstine weighed in with “Factory”, another in a line of songs he’s written that belong to an earlier era of country music and deserve to be heard by a wider audience, and “It’s Been So Long”, which would not be out of place on a Willie Nelson album. One could understand, given circumstances alone, if the album appeared more somber than past affairs but in truth the group’s use of humor has often struck a deeper chord. A casual listen to “A Little More Cocaine Please” from 2004’s Should Have Seen It Come and one might cackle at the title and chorus, but deeper examination reveals a harrowing tale of addiction and one man’s inability to recognize that there will never be enough. On the other hand, Mardis’s “The High Price of Necromancy” suggests that the group hadn’t entirely lost touch with its more reckless youth.

Split Lip continues to tour at the moment although all three members have outside interests––Mardis gigs with a variety of groups include his heavy metal-cum-jazz unit Snakebite and his even more jazz-oriented group Floyd The Barber; Eaton runs a screen printing business, and Gottstine has busied himself of late with Split Livers, a duo with Danny Barnes of Bad Livers, occasional Scroat Belly shows, and his first-ever solo outing, Electricity Vol.1. That recording marries the rock and country elements of Scroat Belly with the tunefulness of latter day Split Lip; critics who chided Scroat Belly for its tendency to only record songs about partying would be happy to note that the vision that was just coming into view then––the marrying of traditional country music, hard-edged rock, and a certain something that one can recognize, wholly on intuition, as being from out in the middle of the country––has come into its own and appears not to be going anywhere soon.

Several other Kansas bands flowered in Split Lip Rayfield’s wake. One of them, The Calamity Cubes, garnered its share of Split Lip comparisons. Although the guitar/banjo/bass lineup makes that an easy leap, the music doesn’t bear it out much. Guitarist and vocalist Brook Blanche doesn’t flinch from sentimentality, as evidenced through songs such as “Battle of Hair Ribbon”, a tender Civil War ballad, or “Bottom’s the Limit”, a drinking song that sees boozing as relief from pain rather than a vocation. Joey Henry’s “Skateboard Hips” is another that widens the chasm between the Cubes and its predecessors––and if there’s another song quite like it in the alt-whatever canon, this writer isn’t aware of it. The group, which is rounded out by bassist Kody Oh, is set to release its third album, Old World’s Ocean, this fall.

Carrie Nation and the Speakeasy, also based in Wichita, came bounding into the world circa 2007, armed with songs that had an uncanny consciousness to them. It seems only right somehow that a group named in part after a radical temperance movement leader would walk the fine line between good time sounds and thought-provoking lyrics. With songs that speak to child neglect (“I Saw Your Daughter”) and atheism (“Stop Believin’”) the still-young band has become a favorite on a touring circuit that stretches from the Midwest into the heights of the Pacific Northwest and the winding ribbons of the South. The group also released, somewhere between the end of 2011 and the dawn of 2012, a split release with Cletus Got Shot from Fayetteville, Arkansas. Titled Liberty. Solidarity. Responsibility, the record is remarkably of its time despite many of the songs featured having been written during the early part of the last century.

What’s perhaps most interesting is these groups can perhaps all now claim more respect from onlookers than mere curiosity.

If one were to guess at the future of this genre––which some call No Depression in part thanks to the magazine that patiently chronicled the rise and proliferation of this roots oriented music––that is not really a genre, it might be easy to speculate that in a few years time there will be bands strapping on electric guitars, cranking up the volume and tempos in the fashion of Scroat Belly and The Starkweathers and singing about the truth, justice, and the American way––at least as it’s understood on the plains. At least as it’s understood in the new century. At least for now.

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