But, to quote Merle Haggard, things aren't funny anymore.
In January, Rundstrom was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, a lethal form of throat cancer. The disease usually hits men over 50; Rundstrom is 37. Despite four months of nonstop 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 all his 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 over the 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 am 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 Lizzarrd and Technicolor Head Rush, but in the heartland, you can avoid country just so long.
"Two things happened," he says. "I listened to Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger. And I went to this bluegrass festival in Winfield 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 them beyond the pale, but the underground punk scene in Kansas City embraced them, and they built a following at warehouse-district parties and the opening slots for bands such as the Bad Livers at the Hurricane. Kansas City was an exception, however. 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 origin. "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 stitch-giver 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."
Bluegrass purists, it goes without saying, hate them. But as much as any alt-country band before or after them, Split Lip has bridged the divide among punks, thrashers, tie-dye twirlers and acoustic freaks. To speak of their evolution over eight years and four albums makes as much sense as charting the historical maturation of barroom brawls. 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 they've never refined, never stopped representing trailers and six-packs. Their total commitment to sleazy absurdity and ferocious speed has won them a committed audience, especially in the Midwest.
"Kansas City is a hard place to break into, one of the harder cities in America," Rundstrom says. "The last five years, it has gotten good. When we play Davey's, you can't get people in the place. It's a real mix of people, hardcore punkers and people into bluegrass. And they like to drink a lot."
That's an understatement. Though Rundstrom has been clean and sober for a few years, he knows that decades 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, he'll continue with alternative therapies, including intravenous vitamin C and acupuncture and a strict sugar-free diet. And he'll continue to work on music. He has solo projects, another release from the prog-rockish Grain and Demise and a just-released Split Lip live album, recorded just 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."