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By Tom Murphy
I don't know where the Slayer comparisons first started," says Eric Madris, quick-fingered banjo picker for bluegrass quartet Split Lip Rayfield. "Obviously, other than just the speed, there isn't much of a sonic comparison. The tempos are there, but it's not like we're trying to get bucked off a goat the whole time."
Still flirting with saddle rash, the Kansas-based outfit does possess a certain acoustic intensity. Not dependent on distortion pedals, Marshall stacks or the Devil himself (at least not to the point of overkill), the band's music somehow keeps critics likening it -- time and again -- to that of the blistering thrash-metal cabal from Orange County. But fleshing out the Split's overall breakneck sound -- one that relies as much on high-lonesome harmonies as it does speed-demon chops -- is a rootsy warmth that would be wasted on a tribute to Joseph Mengele.
"Back in the late '80s, being a metalhead, I can remember the first time I heard "Angel of Death," Madris says, recalling Slayer's infamous air. "At least half of me came from the Megadeth-Anthrax-Iron Maiden school of thought. Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple is the whole reason I wanted to play music in the beginning. So how I got sucked into the bluegrass vortex, I don't know.
"I've played jazz in different quartets," he continues, "but I was wasted one night on New Year's Eve and heard this radio show of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. And the first time I saw Béla Fleck, his banjo head was three or four feet away from my face, and it was just religious. So it wasn't really bluegrass that got me into the banjo. It was more like hearing this insane, jazz-fusion kind of countrified stuff."
No strangers to weird hillbilly hybrids, Split Lip spun off of a goth country trio called Scroat Belly in 1998. The current, unplugged outgrowth features Madris, Kirk Rundstrom on guitar, Wayne Gottstine on mandolin and harmonica and Jeff Eaton on upright bass -- one built from a '65 Ford gas tank and a single string of Weedwacker line. Weighing over fifty pounds, with resonating F-holes shaped like rocket ships, Eaton's monstrosity is nicknamed "The Stitchgiver" for obvious reasons.
"Jeff has got some puncture wounds from those corners, but most of the wounds come from him actually playing the thing," Madris says. "He just opened up a real gruesome one in Chicago on the last leg of this tour. You usually see him duct-tape the fingers on his plucking hand, but those pop off eventually."
"He was looking into making a normal washtub bass," Madris adds. "But it works out fine. Acoustically, it's not so loud. But he's got pickups in it."
With the Stitchgiver's percussive sound eliminating the need for a drummer, Split Lip joins inventive alt-country groups like Austin's tuba-grounded Bad Livers by maintaining a mostly one-man rhythm section. And while such bluegrass variations might border on heresy compared to the trad-and-true music from hardscrabble forefathers like Jimmy Martin or Ralph Stanley, the act has yet to be reprimanded for thinking outside the Appalachian zip code.
"If there's a sentiment that we're pissin' on some heavy's grave, they keep it to themselves," Madris says. "My stepdad is, like, 73 and super-traditional, but he taps his foot to the band when he hears it. If he knew what all the words were going by, he'd probably shake his head."
"We're not trying to bastardize any style or anything like that," Gottstine adds. "People have always been killing people, so there's been murder ballads since the dawn of time. It's just modern words with old thoughts, I guess."
Considering how a tune like "Kiss of Death," from the band's latest disc, Never Make It Home,references LSD and laments countless autos that "took a crap" on the open road (a common Lip theme in addition to bloodshed, whiskey and heartache), it's not hard to picture bluegrass oldsters rolling their eyes if they were actually paying attention to the lyrics. But Chicago-based Bloodshot Records, whose roster includes luminaries such as Neko Case and the Old 97's, certainly likes what it's hearing, enough to have released the outfit's last three efforts: the 1999 self-titled debut, 2000's In the Mud, and Never Make It Home. After touring exhaustively in support of each release, last year the Splits took a well-deserved hiatus for housekeeping and kid-raising.
Charges of not being family-oriented, however, have kept the Splits from the main stage at the annual Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival down the road in Winfield. Then again, the small, conservative community where the festival resides is a dry county.
"We could play shows for green-haired Mohawk kids or snow-on-the-roof guys and get a good response," Madris insists. "I don't think it's an age thing, necessarily. But it seems like the big bluegrass establishment has really been watered down and homogenized for the retiree set."
Daring to combine Jesus and moonshine in the same breath, the group has shared bills with bluegrass royalty Del McCoury as well as jam-noodlers Leftover Salmon. In fact, the Splits have established a sizable tie-dyed following without even trying.