On My Way is the first album in eight years from Split Lip Rayfield. The long-awaited recording was a welcome arrival for fans, but it also offered surprises for the Lawrence-based trio. The LP debuted at Number 8 on Billboard’s bluegrass chart. The band’s Wayne Gottstine says he expected the effort to do well but maybe after he and his bandmates had done some roadwork to support it.
“It was kind of surprising,” he says, “because we really haven’t started to do a lot of shows yet. We’ve sold CDs through our website and downloads through Bandcamp and iTunes. I haven’t checked the iTunes sales, but I think that’s where the majority of the sales are coming from. So it’s a pretty good start not having yet hit the road.”
On My Way is the group’s sixth studio release and, Gottstine says, it may be the outfit’s most commercially successful to date.
“I’m not even sure if we’ve been on the bluegrass charts before. I don’t remember. We’ve been together so long it’s hard to remember things like that,” he notes. “It was kind of a surprise to hear from Billboard, saying, ‘Hey, you guys are going to be on the charts next week. And they we were, starting off at Number 8.”
Work on this new album began in earnest in early 2016 but, Gottstine recalls, he, gas tank bassist Jeff Eaton and banjo player Eric Mardis, went through intense preparations before hitting the studio.
“First, we put all those songs together and we played them live for like a year,” he says. “That’s one of the difference, I think, in this record. The songs were so together and so fleshed out already that when it came to recording it just fell together very well.”
Split Lip Rayfield also worked outside the confines of a traditional recording studio this time out. The group’s own Mardis was central in that process, as Gottstine explains.
“We did the majority of it in my house,” he says. “That’s the convenience of modern technology. It’s reasonably affordable to put your own studio together. Eric had pretty much acquired all the equipment and he engineered the record.”
Between performing the material live extensively on the road before recording and having all the band members living in the same city for the first time in Split Lip’s nearly 22-year history, the process, Gottstine suggests, was in many ways less work than in the past.
“In the past what we have done is basically showed up to the studio and everybody was learning the songs in the studio,” he recalls. “It’s a little bit more laborious that way. Having played the songs and let them evolve a little more naturally, when we went into the studio we laid down the tracks in about half the time that it’s taken to do the past albums. We had studio equipment on the road with us and we actually finished up a lot of the tracks in a motel room in Durango, Colorado.”
With those six studio recordings behind them now, Split Lip Rayfield is now in the enviable position of having a broad range of material to draw from for shows. Gottstine says that having that much material places the trio in one unique position.
“Our master setlist is huge," he says. "For our New Year’s Eve show, we played two-and-a-half hours and there was still quality songs that we didn’t have the time to play. On the other hand, it is nice to be able bring in a bunch of new songs and freshen up the setlist. I think we have a lot of quality songs over the years. It’s a good problem to have.”
Although superior musicianship remains a cornerstone of Split Lip’s existence, the trio is just as much about delivering well-crafted songs. Gottstine, who has been writing material since the 1980s, says he continues to learn new elements of that craft all the time. In the end, he adds, a good song is informed by one important element: Honesty.
“You have to be honest with yourself,” he says. “You have convey this honesty in your song and you have to be willing to put your heart on your sleeve and not be afraid to say the things that are on your mind. Maybe when I was younger I would contrive a scene that was maybe fantasy or maybe fictional and try to write a song about that. I found that just drawing from your own personal experiences is, for me, a better way to write a song that people can relate to. A lot of people have gone through similar experiences. If you’re just honest in your songwriting then that is going to strike more a chord with people than trying to write some fictional scene that you didn’t really experience.”
And, Gottstine says, he’s not afraid to include elements of the personal in his songs. Because, he adds, his own struggles and good times are reflected in the lives of his listeners as well.
“There’s nobody that is immune to heartache and pain in this world. There’s just no way around it,” he says. “A lot of this record is tapped into some of the struggles that I’ve gone through. Some of the songs are reflective of some of the happy times I’ve gone through as well. That’s kind of what I’ve learned over the years of songwriting: You just let out the actual feelings that you have and people will relate to that.”
Split Lip Rayfield’s latest, On My Way is out now. The band plays at The Cotillion Ballroom Friday evening with Carrie Nation and The Speakeasy.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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