Split Lip Rayfield: Hot, sweaty and acoustic
Aspen Times Weekly
ASPEN ” Split Lip Rayfield hasn’t had an especially smooth ride, especially in recent times. Two years ago this month, Kirk Rundstrom, the founding guitarist of the Wichita-based group, died after a bout with cancer. Two years before that, mandolinist Wayne Gottstine took a year off for personal reasons that he won’t disclose.
Gottstine could probably do without death and other offstage dramas. But when it comes to the music, he welcomes challenges. And if there’s not a challenge staring him down, he’ll create one.
“Most projects I’m in, they work because everyone’s out of their comfort zone,” said the 40-year-old from Wichita, where was born and lives, and where Split Lip Rayfield is based. “The most comfortable thing I could play is electric guitar in a pop-rock band. If I just want to breathe for a night, that’s what I’ll play. But if I just want another perspective, I’ll pick up a mandolin and put together an acoustic string band.”
That’s not exactly what Gottstine did, but it’s close. Split Lip Rayfield was already up and running on the mid-’90s Wichita music scene before Gottstine joined up. Gottstine and the late Rundstrom had a group of their own, the hard-rocking, electrified country band Scroat Belly, which often appeared with Split Lip Rayfield. When Split Lip bassist Jeff Eaton couldn’t make some shows in Austin, Gottstine filled in. “And I stuck around,” he said ” as a mandolinist, an instrument he had no history with.
The template for Split Lip Rayfield had been set from the outset. Rundstrom, Eaton and banjoist David Lawrence ” who was replaced by Eric Mardis early on ” played an aggressive take on acoustic string-band music. The group’s hallmarks were its name (borrowed from a real person Eaton knew in his hometown of Gumbo, Mo.), and Eaton’s bass ” a one-string instrument whose body had a previous existence as the gas tank of a car.
Joining the band put Gottstine in his favorite gear ” having to play catch-up. In his early years, his musical exposure was limited to AM country radio. He didn’t get turned onto rock ‘n’ roll until he was 10, and from there, the range of his musical input was huge: “From Conway Twitty to Frank Zappa,” he says. At 12, he picked up guitar.
Gottstine began adding acoustic string music to his influences at the Walnut Valley Festival, a massive annual gathering in Winfield, Kan., some 25 miles from Wichita. In the Scroat Belly days, he and Rundstrom would gather with the informal group of pickers on the festival’s fringes, where the big thing was jamming rock and pop songs on bluegrass instruments.
“I was learning a lot and playing a lot and having a good time with it,” said Gottstine. “It evolved out of that old-style stuff in Winfield.” The area where Gottstine and others would assemble was known as Stage 5, and Split Lip Rayfield’s sound has become known as the Stage 5 sound.
But while he had acoustic music in his background, Gottstine entered Split Lip Rayfield with no experience at all on the mandolin. Which, naturally, made it the perfect instrument for him to pick up when he joined the band.
“I listened to the obvious bluegrass heroes ” Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers ” to get a grip on the more traditional sound,” said Gottstine of his crash course on the mandolin. “But as I’ve grown I’ve gotten to know of people like Sam Bush, who’s like a super hot-rodder, and Jethro Burns, who is the master to me.”
Those pickers seem more in line with Split Lip Rayfield’s style. Rather than settle into standard bluegrass ideas, the group mixes rock, old country and even strains of punk into their sound. For several years, they recorded for the Bloodshot label, which specializes in a testosterone-heavy form of modern country music that it has dubbed “insurgent country.” The band released its most recent CD, last year’s “I’ll Be Around,” on their own, but they still fit the Bloodshot mold.
“It’s just fast, aggressive, an in-your-face kind of show,” said Gottstine of the band’s onstage persona. “It’s a hot, sweaty situation.”
Listening to “I’ll Be Around” ” which features seven songs written by Gottstine and five by Mardis ” you get the sense that the band is inspired not so much by other bands, but by their drive to come up with something original. The songs have a bluegrass sound but not structure, and the singing is steps removed from the high, lonesome sound associated with bluegrass. The lyrics reference typical bluegrass subjects like rivers and religion, but on songs like “The High Price of Necromancy,” they come at them from a unique angle.
“It’s a culmination of four different people with four different listening histories,” said Gottstine of the Split Lip Rayfield sound. “We’re coming from a roots music place. But all of us have listened to so many kinds of music, we might put a more aggressive style on an old-timey song, or write a rock progression and give it a bluegrass style.
“With every band I’ve been in, it’s something we try to create out of a vacuum,” continued Gottstine, who also plays electric guitar in the hard-rock band, the Sluggos.
Gottstine says that when Split Lip Rayfield entered the studio for their first recording project without Rundstrom, they responded to the absence of the guitarist with a workman-like attitude. “The approach was serious,” he said. “Not that we didn’t have a good time; we had fun. But we got in there, cranked it out, worked it over. We put in solid blocks of 12 hours a day for about nine days. We attacked it, pretty much.” The band dedicated “I’ll Be Around” ” just as they dedicate every show ” to Rundstrom’s memory. The title track to the album is a somber, poignant reflection on the late musician.
When they get on stage these days, the trick is not to attack things too much.
“I think we play harder,” said Gottstine, explaining how they compensate for the missing piece of the band. “We just have to step it up and cover for our lost man. But when we try to do that, it screws it up. When we just do our thing, that’s when it goes well. If you try to do too much, that’s when you’re tripping over each other.
“With the new material, there’s no void you’re trying to fill.”
Given Gottstine’s propensity for building things from scratch, maybe the obvious course following the death would have been to scrap Split Lip Rayfield and form another band. But Gottstine and company decided to stay the course, and not to replace Rundstrom.
“I think we’ll probably always do it as a trio now,” said Gottstine. “It’s the three of us. There are plenty of talented musicians who could do this job, but it’s a chemistry thing and a history thing and these are the guys who are going to do it.”
And there was the other matter of Gottstine having found a gig, and a pair of bandmates, who suited him. That’s no small thing. When Gottstine decided to return to Split Lip Rayfield in 2005, he says it was because “I’m basically unemployable.”
“I don’t mind working,” he continued. “But I don’t like being told what to do and when to do it.”
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