Kansas Trio Split Lip Rayfield Survives, And Thrives, In The Bruising Bluegrass Business

Jun 15, 2017

Twenty-two years is a long time for any band, even a bluegrass band, to stay together.

Split Lip Rayfield has made it that far.

To put their career in perspective, Bill Monroe and the most famous versions of his Bluegrass Boys only made it about half that long, and not without several important line-up changes along the way.

Split Lip, a self-described “thrashgrass” trio, shows no signs of slowing down — in this case, as one of the most rapid-picking bluegrass groups ever, no signs of literally slowing down.

Even with the loss of founding member and guitarist Kirk Rundstrom to esophageal cancer a full ten years ago, the current trio of Wayne Gottstine on mandolin, Eric Mardis on banjo, and Jeff Eaton on gas-tank bass is still tearing up stages at 95 miles an hour.

If anything, they’re stronger than ever, with a new album, On My Way, their first in eight years, released this year.

“Our live show has developed to the best it’s ever been,” Gottstine says from his home in Lawrence. “I love singing with Eric and Jeff, and I think we’ve really hit our stride this year.”

This summer, the band is playing a full slate of festivals across the country, including the Black and Bluegrass Ball this Saturday at CrossroadsKC. Gottstine, who wrote nine of the eleven of songs for the new record, is clearly energized by the new material.

“We’re usually playing eight or ten songs from the new album every night,” he notes.

Those new songs expand the band’s moods considerably, with the highest highs and lowest lows the band has explored so far.

“That’s My Girl,” a rolling, contented appreciation of the best girlfriend ever, has lyrics as sweet as the happiest Motown tune. Gottstine characterizes it as “definitely a good lead-off track.”

“It turns out a lot of girls like that song,” he admits. “It’s fun to play and see girls smiling up at you. That never hurts.”

But Gottstine’s songs also plunge into the darkest depths, tackling subjects generally reserved for the most heartbroken realms of non-chart country music. In a song like the perfectly titled “Drunk and Sad,” a speaker quietly, firmly and with resignation, lets his girlfriend know that if she gets drunk, angry and maudlin tonight (again), he’s “just going home.”

“It absolutely is a real, heart-wrenching song,” Gottstine says with a sigh. “I’ve witnessed the effect of alcoholism on people, on relationships … it’s hard to maintain a relationship with a drinking problem in the middle of it.”

Live, those songs give the band a chance to expand their range, as well as take a breather – and limit physical injuries.

“We have to give our bass player a little bit of a rest while we’re playing live,” Gottsine says. “That one-string bass is a lot of work.”

Eaton’s instrument is made of a gas tank and a weed-whacker string.

“It’s rough on his hands,” Gottstine explains. “He plays it fantastically. Of all the people I’ve seen with a homemade instrument, he’s the master. He plays it as well as anyone plays a regular bass.”

In other songs, risk and danger come in huge slabs of truth.

“Used To Know Your Wife,” a monologue from someone meeting his ex’s new husband, captures the impossible — and comical — awkwardness of that encounter: “I used to know your wife/I’m the darkest chapter in her life.”

“In a smaller town, where the dating world is kind of complicated, when you have only so many people to draw from in the pool, you’re going to have that clash,” Gottstine says.

The song is classic Split Lip Rayfield: hard-driving, unblinking, and painful. It’s also a sing-along favorite with their crowd.

And presumably that’ll be true at the Black and Blue-Grass Ball, which features five bands from every corner of the genre, including the Jeff Austin Band – Austin is the former Yonder Mountain String Band mandolinist – and Kansas City’s Loaded Goat.

“We all carry the same instruments,” Gottstine says, “but we’ve spread out the genre quite a bit.”

“It’s a rough business,” he adds, contemplating the band’s success.

“A lot of the bands we played with fifteen or twenty years ago are no longer around. We still have a couple of friends that are still out there hustling and doing it, but they kind of fall by the wayside over the years because it is such a demanding profession. People get burned out, people start families … we’ve been able to chug right through that.”

Which makes the band lucky in more ways than one.

“At this point, we’re all pretty much unemployable,” Gottstine concedes, laughing. “I’m almost 50, so I think I’ll go ahead and stick with this for awhile.”

Black and Blue-Grass Ball, 5:30 p.m. Saturday, June 17, at Crossroads KC, 417 E. 18th St, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108.

KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.