Well-known Kansas musician dies of cancer at 38

Kirk Rundstrom kept performing, playing and touring until his death Thursday.

The well-known musician, who was frontman for the highly regarded Kansas band Split Lip Rayfield, died of cancer at his home in Wichita.

He was 38.

He died “like Thelma and Louise, pedal to the metal over the canyon wall,” said longtime friend Brett Mosiman, who owns The Bottleneck, 737 N.H.

“He was an incredible free spirit,” Mosiman said. “He was more full of life than most people you come into contact with.”

Rundstrom and Split Lip were a well-established piece of the Lawrence music scene. Their music – a mix of bluegrass, country and rock – attracted crowds to clubs, and the band was popular at the Wakarusa Camping and Music Festival at Clinton Lake.

Rundstrom played his last local concert Feb. 3 at The Bottleneck. Since then, he and the band, which debuted in 1998, have toured throughout the country, most recently in Kentucky and Ohio.

Rundstrom was in New York with his wife, Lisa, during the past weekend, mixing songs for his soon-to-be-released solo album – the last of at least five group and solo albums – when he fell ill. He returned Monday to Wichita.

“I think he shielded everybody because he kept playing. He forged ahead,” Mosiman said. “He was like that good old hound dog that never let on how hurting he was.”

Rundstrom was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in February 2006. He underwent intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatment in hopes of shrinking the cancer to a level where it could be surgically removed. When doctors started the surgery in June, they discovered the cancer had spread to his heart, stomach and lymph nodes. Doctors gave him two to six months to live.

Instead of succumbing to his disease, Rundstrom went off chemotherapy and launched a tour.

Nan Warshaw, owner of Bloodshot Records, which signed Split Lip Rayfield to its label, said that Rundstrom was one of the most passionate people she had ever met.

“He got so much out of playing. That’s probably what kept him alive so long,” she said.

Several of the concerts in the past year were held specifically to benefit Rundstrom, who had no medical insurance. Art auctions and online appeals also helped pay for the thousands of dollars spent on his cancer treatments.

Warshaw said Rundstrom had been collecting copies of his recordings in recent times. He wanted to make sure he left copies for his family: his wife, daughters Ellie and Molly and father, Bernerd.

“Clearly, his music and recording were the utmost importance to him,” Warshaw said. “He decided he was not going to stop and that he was going to fight and play to the end.”

In a posting on the band’s Web site, the surviving members of Split Lip Rayfield left a message to their fans and a tribute to Rundstrom: “Anybody who knew Kirk knew that he had more zest than all of us. He truly had an ethereal spirit. We have been proud and impressed with the way he went out on his own terms. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t fair, and it sure as hell isn’t right, but he was an inspiration.”

– Kansas University journalism student Kim Lynch contributed to this report.