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Kirk Rundstrom, songwriter, singer and guitarist for the Wichita, Kansas, punk-grass band Split Lip Rayfield, has built a career on graphic country travesties of drinking, drugs and devastation, weird songs that mock and make merry with death like a white-trash Día de los Muertos pageant. The band, featuring Eric Mardis on banjo, Wayne Gottstine on mandolin and Jeff Eaton on gas-tank bass, blast through the remorseless debauchery with a joy as manic as their finger-and-string-shredding thwack and strum.
But to quote Merle Haggard, things aren't funny anymore.
In January, Rundstrom came out to Colorado to go skiing. His back was sore and he couldn't swallow. "I'd just done 58 shows in a row," he recalls. "I thought it was because I was singing every night and the pain in my back was from the road. I was healthy -- no drugs, no fast food, no alcohol."
He was immediately diagnosed with squamous-cell carcinoma, the most common and lethal form of esophageal cancer. The disease usually hits men over 50; Rundstrom is 37. Despite four months of non-stop chemotherapy, the cancer invaded his aorta and lymph nodes. The doctors gave him two to six months.
Rundstrom, who has lived to tour and toured to live his entire adult life, called off the chemo and started making plans -- not for a funeral, but for another run of shows, a run he plans to see through to the end.
"I haven't left home since January," he says via phone from Wichita. "I'm a human pin cushion. Every day I am off the chemo, the more I get the drugs out of my body, the better I feel. I'm just now getting the strength to form the chords. But if for some reason I only have a little time left, I don't want to spend it in a bed. I know where chemotherapy puts people. I know where it put me. They've offered me more chemo, with no chance of stopping it, but with the chance of prolonging my life. I don't want to live like that. I'm forcing myself out of bed every day, to get my foot out the front door. To take positive steps toward my cure.
"I think," he pauses, then corrects himself, "I...I am going to beat this."
Before the death sentence, Rundstrom's story followed the contours of the alt-country archetype. In his early twenties, he screamed and thrashed in abrasive punk bands Red Lizard and Technicolor Head Rush, but in the heartland you can no more avoid country than you can growing up.
"Two things happened," he says. "I listened to Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger. And I went to this bluegrass festival in Winfield, Kansas, and saw people rocking on acoustic instruments. I realized there was more to music than Ministry and Pigface."
In 1995, Rundstrom formed Scroat Belly, a quasi-industrial, quasi-twang band assaulting uncouth novelties like "Born in a Barn" and "The Booze Won't Let Me Down." Even the bangers at Bloodshot Records found Rundstrom and company beyond the pale, but the underground punk scene in Lawrence and Kansas City embraced them, and they built a following at warehouse-district parties and opening slots for bands like the Bad Livers. The rest of the Midwest, however, proved to be an exception; burned out and broke from slamming their heads against empty rooms, Rundstrom and then-tour manager Jeff Eaton retreated to Wichita.
"It was back when we were a three-piece, at Kirby's Beer Store," Rundstrom says of Split Lip Rayfield's Wichita origins. "We were just screwing around. We were all broke and wanted beer. We convinced the owner we were a band, and we played for free beer. At that gig, another bar owner hired us to play every Tuesday night at Panama Red's. We took the name from a friend of Jeff's, one of the Rayfields from Gumbo, Missouri, population 82. His mom would always talk about how one boy would let his lip get all dried out and cracked."
Split Lip's unplugged formula wasn't calculated, and Rundstrom never predicted the second coming of progressive bluegrass and acoustic jam bands heralded by O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Leftover Salmon. But with mandolin, banjo, stand-up "stitchgiver" bass and dreadnought guitar, he found he could play as fast and hard as he ever had -- and cream a room, regardless of volume.
"You put electricity and drums behind us and we're a rock band," he says. "We play bluegrass instruments, but we don't do covers; we don't wear rouge or bolo ties. I don't know any traditionals. I couldn't play a flat-pickin' song to save my life. I'm a hack of a guitar player. Eric may be one of the best guitar players I've heard, but we forced him to play banjo. I don't know what Wayne is doing; he's just shredding his mandolin. I wouldn't even want to be associated with the state of bluegrass today. It's lounge music."
Needless to say, bluegrass purists hate the band. But as much as any alt-country outfit before or after them, Split Lip has bridged the divide between punks, thrashers, tie-dye twirlers and acoustic freaks. To speak of the act's evolution over eight years and four albums makes as much sense as charting the historical maturation of bar-room brawls. Even in the context of insurgent country, Split Lip's records aren't very good -- too long, somewhat monochromatic as hillbilly parodies go, almost the antithesis of the group's live onslaught.
"That's my complaint with the last album," Rundstrom says. "It's pretty wimpy -- too many slow and sappy songs. We're probably softer than when we started. I will say this: We are tighter, and we can play our instruments better."
Rundstrom may not break as many strings, and Gottstine (who has rejoined the band after leaving to be with his family) works his mandolin with more finesse, but the group has never refined or reined in its sleazy absurdities -- trailers, six-packs and dirt tracks -- or speed for the sake of speed.
Though Rundstrom has been clean and sober for a few years, he knows that decades of fast living, of booze, drugs and smoking, have killed him. "You are what you put into your body," he says. "I'm a firm believer of that. But everybody has to find that on their own."
The current tour will be built around three-day runs; on off days, Rundstrom will continue with alternative therapies, intravenous vitamin C, acupuncture and a strict, sugar-free diet. He's convinced that he's made the right choice; he knows the facts, but he also knows that for him, conventional treatments were just another way of dying.
"For the majority of cancer patients," he notes, "you get diagnosed, it's such a scary thing. The doctor says they're going to do chemo, which is a little bit of hope, and you jump at it. I think chemo is America's form of euthanasia, for the most part. They can't find a cure for cancer. It's ridiculous. One woman with breast cancer can walk into a hospital, and she gets chemo, and it clears it. Another woman gets the same treatment and it spreads through her body. The doctors don't change the course. They give her the same chemo. I don't know if that's because drug companies took doctors out on a Caribbean cruise and said, 'This is the drug we're pushing this year.' But if something doesn't work, you have to try something different."
As long as his body allows, Rundstrom will keep focusing on his music. He has solo projects planned, another release from the prog-rockish Grain and Demise, and a just-released Split Lip live album, recorded right after he was diagnosed.
"I love playing music," he says. "Doing chemo, I couldn't play. I went from 200 pounds to 140. I just gave up on music. That's ridiculous, because that's what I really love. I'm gonna keep going till I can't."