Even in a scene slowly flooding with string bands that play with punk-rock fervor, Split Lip Rayfield stand out. For one, their origins go back further than most, to the mid-'90s when the Wichita, Kan., act formed out of Bloodshot Records metal-country act Scroat Belly. The other big difference is the musical backbone of bassist Jeff Eaton, who plays a one-string gut-bucket bass constructed out of a '78 Mercury Marquis gas tank and a weed-whacker line with an upright bass pickup system for amplification. You can bet it's plenty loud, a sensation augmented by the ferocity of their playing.
"We're playing an aggressive style of acoustic music. If you weren't looking at us you might think we were six or seven guys," says mandolin/guitarist Wayne Gottstine. "I think the harmonies are what set us apart from other upstart faux country-bluegrass things that are loud and aggressive, yet lack the vocals and instrumental articulation that [banjo player Eric Mardis] and I have. I've been playing music for 30 years. I should be getting pretty good at it by now."
Their spirited, sometimes irreverent, harmony-enriched sound recalls the energy of Bad Livers, though their approach is more traditional. They released four studio albums before Gottstine left in 2005 to attend to a family tragedy. Split Lip forged on as a three-piece, and he returned a year later when guitarist Kirk Rundstrom was diagnosed with cancer. Rundstrom went out on his own terms — touring the country and playing music, despite the toll on his body. He died Feb. 22, 2007.
That might've been it for the band, but Reverend Horton Heat asked them to open a show for him, and advised them "to get off your butts and make it happen again." Around the same time, Cartoon Network's Adult Swim show Squidbillies called looking for some "bluegrass music from Satan." A number of shows followed and before you knew it, the trio had reconvened to record 2008's I'll Be Around, which they dedicated to Rundstrom.
It's arguably their finest release, and certainly their most eclectic, from the hilarious D&D/metal-inspired lyrics of Mandis' "The High Price of Necromancy" to the autobiographical blue collar ode "Factory," which rails against the stultifying old boy network. It's something Gottstine experienced first-hand working at a "soul-sucking" airplane factory until they moved him from the relative safety of a punch press machine to a brake press where "you held tiny pieces of metal with your hands, and used a foot pedal, so you could cut your hands right off if you weren't careful." Gottstine quit on the spot, and rededicated himself to making and teaching music.
"It was hard to make that step after Kirk passed away. I didn't know what else I would really do," he recalls. "[Death] makes you realize how short life is and how working for other people sucks, how I want to do my own thing and how I'm going to do my own thing. ... Am I doing it right? Hell, I don't know. But I try."
Being away from music only reinforced his appreciation of it, and he reports never feeling as much joy making music as he does now. He doesn't begrudge all the kids who've given up punk rock the last half-dozen years in favor of alt-country. He understands.
"I was talking to a friend of mine's wife, and she said, 'When I married Tom I thought I was marrying this cool punk rocker, and now he's playing bluegrass,' " Gottstine laughs. "I'm like, 'Yeah, he got better. He kept playing.' There's only so much you can do with three chords and a distortion pedal. That gets old. You want to start making real music. You want to see improvement in yourself."
That's how you go from merely a musician to a lifer, a sentence Gottstine's looking forward to serving.