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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Kirk Rundstrom, 1968-2007: Thank you.

Like a lot of people in this world, I have a million things I’m supposed to be doing today. But it’s gray again in Paris, my beautiful old dog is an old dog, I’m sitting in a room full of furniture that’s been sold on-line as a major symbolic step in a harrowing divorce process, and it’s Sunday. That there are other puppies that will be born, that people can fall in love again—it all just makes me sadder; seems more just if they could not. But most of all, I can’t justify going one more goddamned day without talking about Kirk Rundstrom. New puppies and loves? Maybe. Another Kirk Rundstrom? No fucking way.

Kirk Rundstrom of the ever-beloved insurgent country groups Split Lip Rayfield and Scroat Belly was taken by cancer on February 22. I’m disgusted with myself for having deferred my memorial ‘til now. His passing has had a considerable impact on me, and it's not only because we were the same age.

I first saw Kirk playing with Scroat Belly in Lawrence, Ks some time in 1995. Though I’m not precise on the date, I’ll never forget the impression that Kirk left on me. One word comes to mind: energy. The man was Shazzam on guitar. He beamed (smiled right back at the Grim fucking Reaper, I’d bet), he rocked, and yet tattooed, work-booted and capped by farm feed suppliers, the man never played the cocky rocker. When you watched him shred that acoustic (or electrified acoustic) guitar you witnessed an electrical storm on guitar strings. He and his comrades would play until they either couldn’t physically play any more or the club owner pulled the plug, as Kirk looked out disappointedly from a small pond of sweat he had generated over the last two hours of giving everything he had to an audience. He loved to share his energy. He forgave us our faults and welcomed us asking nothing in return save for our attention. Were Jesus to return as an alt.country rocker, Kirk Rundstrom would be an obvious form for him to take—what? You didn’t read that sermon: “Will preach for beer?”

After that first kiss, I henceforth slept with only one eye shut, the other ever looking for a new Scroat Belly or Split Lip Rayfield—in a word: Rundstrom—show to be announced, which I could not possibly miss, I said to myself and not overstating the matter all that much. I moved to Chicago in 1997 but had the good fortune of seeing Rundstrom perform often there, Chicago being the headquarters of Bloodshot Records, which boasted Rundstrom's bands on their impressive roster.

Like others, I was never ever disappointed by a Kirk Rundstrom performance. I never felt ripped off as if by one of these bands who appear to prefer playing to a wall and who are more than happy to be off stage in 30 minutes and no encore, no matter how much you paid for a ticket. On the contrary, Kirk would encore until the cows came home, and then some more.

If you all don't believe me, listen to some of the praise from more credible critics:
"Slap your knee to these guys and you'll be sore the next day." - New York Press

A band of badasses with the avowed intent of kicking the oldtime sound in the posterior till it shouts out a brand new tune. CMJ New Music Report

"The fearsome foursome of Split Lip combines a traditional bluegrass sound with the blazing speed and energy of punk rock, and in the process manages to improve on the formula. Should have Seen it Coming is quite possibly the best recorded document of its myriad skills and charm." - Tucson Weekly

In the late 90s I had the opportunity to meet the man personally when he came to Chicago, generously appearing with his band mates to record live for the alt. and classic country show on Chicago’s WNUR radio station, “Southbound Train,” which I hosted with Keith Cook. Not only was Kirk a fine musician and performer; he was also a fine human being by all standards. Talented, friendly, generous, an un-pretentious bon vivant who loved his beer, American gothic, and barbeque. His big tattooed forearms gave him the air of a scrappy farmer, even a man who had had his share of winning bar fights—until you saw that smile of his. There was nothing macho about it. He seemed to bridge waters, peoples, styles, classes, regions.

As others have also remarked, it is unsurprising that he would with his bandmates bridge what had seemed naturally gulfed audiences and styles of music: bluegrass, speed metal, punk, and hippy jam bands. There were elements of each in his music, his style, his way of being. Perhaps others had tried: they had failed where he succeeded, even if not enough people have been able to appreciate his talent for this bridging and hybridity.

"You put electricity and drums behind us and we're a rock band," he said in a well-circulated quote. "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."

This approach to music made Scroat Belly’s one and only album on Bloodshot Records, Daddy’s Farm a cult classic. Each song seemed to be a tempest of twang, loud, hard and fast, preceded by a more traditional lull and followed by the same. There was always something rough and not really ironic about Kirk’s and Wayne’s vocals in the slower parts of the songs which kept them from sounding like straight duplicates or caricatures of a Louvin Brothers or Bill Monroe number; and always something twangy in voice, style and arrangement that kept them from ever being confused with Metallica or Agent Orange imitators.

An acoustic version of Scroat Belly (on some songs at least) lived on in Split Lip Rayfield also on Bloodshot, which produced a number of impressive albums in this unique genre, my favorite of which is perhaps the first and eponymous album in 1998. With Kirk, Eric Mardis joined on banjo, while Jeff Eaton strapped a lone cat-gut string to a truck fuel tank and bloodied his duct-taped hands on bass; Scroat Belly’s Wayne Gottstine returned later to “shred,” as Kirk said, a mandolin in the mix. Can you start to imagine what this looked like live, had you never tasted the sweet nectar of a Split Lip show? The syncopated beats and minor chords of “Outlaw” and barnburner; the auctioneer-ish vocals and sped up, even if often rudimentary, picking of “Long Haul Weekend”; a kind of truck-stop poetry to numbers like “Pinball Machine”; a necessary simplicity and celebrated naiveté of “Sunshine”; a vaguely Balkans-like pace and punchiness to some of them—they stuck with you all day and commanded your return to them, a command that has me often returning to this album almost ten years later.

Unlike with Heehaw and some of its alt.country descendants, it was never completely clear to what degree Split Lip/Scroat Belly embraced and lived the country motifs and clichés they rearranged, added to, and played with, which was probably a good thing. This complex relationship with the rural, the land, and its culture (like Faulkner’s with the South!) also emerged in their DIY streak, such as t-shirts they made with the montage of a well-nourished hog in silhouette, the name Split Rip Rayfield and the text “100% pure fat.” Funny, ironic, knowingly embracing what the mainstream South Beach Dieters feared in food, culture, music? Who knows? But it was good.



My ex- and I shared a lot of wonderful things together, perhaps the most powerful and satisfying being music, especially live music. For us, going to their shows was like the revivifying trip to the spa that our bourgeois counterparts swear is indispensable for getting out of bed in the morning and continuing this often perplexing daily cycle. From SxSW 1998 to various gigs in Chicago and Lawrence through 2004, we would leave Kirk’s shows re-charged, beaming, Kirk’s smile as contagious as the music he played. If I could change one of the many things I don’t like about myself, it might very well be to take Kirk’s smile and use it like an Evil Eye. It seemed to offer asylum and to ward off bad luck, even if its limit was death.

Kirk’s (his bands’) recordings of course must lack that visual zest. Yet, more than a little strangely, you can hear without much effort and concentration that missing sense. The sound evokes the image. Kirk was and will continue to be a spirit. You listen and you can see him behind those lifeless speakers and that grim faux-metallic stereo, his playful bulging eyes and unquenchable smile refusing to fade—ever. So thank God for recorded music, and despite Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, thank God for memory: Kirk’s spirit, his smile, lives on, and God knows I, like others, need it. Thank you, Kirk. You will not soon be forgotten. Myspace tribute video
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