Kirk Rundstrom: 1968 to 2007
Split Lip Rayfield guitarist and vocalist Kirk Rundstrom succumbed to esophageal cancer on February 22 after a year-long battle with the disease. He was 38. A spirited and tireless performer, Rundstrom was fond of telling anyone who’d listen, “I want to make music every day of my life.” And he very nearly did.
In the early 1990s, Rundstrom became an integral part of the music scene in his adopted hometown of Wichita, Kansas. There he met his longtime musical partner, Wayne Gottstine; they worked in a succession of bands including the acid-laden psychedelic noise project Winking Spaniard (in which he played percussion), Technicolor Headrush, and Scroat Belly, which Gottstine described as “country music from hell.”
That outfit recorded two albums — The Great Alaskan Holiday and Daddy’s Farm, the latter released by Chicago’s then-fledgling Bloodshot Records in 1997. According to one Bloodshot staffer, Scroat Belly was the most internally polarizing band the label ever signed, its music inspiring either churning stomachs or ear-to-ear grins, depending on what the listener had — or hadn’t — ingested before listening.
The quartet toured relentlessly, playing shows across the United States often — literally — for no one. “At the end we were broke financially and spiritually,” Rundstrom said in a 2005 interview. Ever relentless in his musical ambitions, he and friend Jeff Eaton began Split Lip Rayfield as a busking project. After recruiting banjo player Eric Mardis, the group signed with Bloodshot and released its self-titled debut album in 1998.
Split Lip picked up Gottstine for 1999’s In The Mud and took to the road opening shows for Slobberbone, Junior Brown, Nashville Pussy and the Reverend Horton Heat. Life within the band wasn’t always perfect. Rundstrom partied as hard as he played, and in 2002 rumors spread that the group was over. But one year later, Split Lip Rayfield — with a healthy and highly driven Rundstrom leading the way — was back on the road. They would remain there for the better part of three years, gaining their widest profile in 2005 with appearances at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Wakarusa in Lawrence, Kansas.
During his time off from Split Lip, Rundstrom toured with his other band, Grain & Demise, and as a solo artist, sometimes getting home from one tour just hours before leaving for a three-week jaunt with Split Lip Rayfield.
At the end of 2005, he gave up his apartment in Wichita and began crashing with friends. He planned to spend all of 2006 on the road, sharing time with both bands; he said that if he could find a way to play all 365 days in the year, he’d do it. But he’d been plagued by a sore throat and shoulder pain for some time, and in February 2006, just before a Split Lip Rayfield gig in Colorado, he found that he had difficulty swallowing.
Just hours before taking the stage, he was informed by a physician that he had esophageal cancer. He performed that night and the next before returning to Kansas for chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Later in the year he underwent surgery to have the tumor removed, but by then the cancer had spread to vital organs. He was told he had two to six months to live. He opted to take to the road and spent most of his weekends gigging with Split Lip Rayfield, Grain & Demise, and even a reunited Scroat Belly. Although Split Lip canceled a few February 2007 dates, Rundstrom mustered enough strength to put the finishing touches on his fourth and final solo album, Imperfect Spirals, completed just days before his death.
He is survived by his wife, Lisa Fletcher Rundstrom, and their two daughters.