Violin remains distinct element in sound, success of Kansas

Kansas is on tour to celebrate its 40th anniversary.
Kansas is on tour to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Photo provided

The 1970s may be mostly identified as an era for iconic singer-songwriters, but the decade also became known for its progressive, album-oriented American rock bands that would dominate the rock music scene well into the 1980s. Forty years later, Kansas once again will make a stop in Pennsylvania at the Community Arts Center in Williamsport.

A fixture of classic-rock radio and known for the hit singles “Carry On Wayward Son,” “Dust in the Wind” and “Point of Know Return,” Kansas has produced eight gold albums, three sextuple-platinum albums, and played to sold-out arenas and stadiums throughout North America, Europe and Japan.

Kansas formed in 1970 in their hometown of Topeka, Kansas. Early incarnations of the band performed under different names and included Phil Ehart on drums and percussion and guitarist Rich Williams, both of whom remain with the group today. The band evolved even further as it began to adopt its own identity, and later additions to the band included lead vocalist Steve Walsh, guitarist Kerry Livgren and bassist David Hope.

In 1974, the band released its self-titled debut album, an album that defined the band’s signature sound — a mix of American-style boogie rock and complex, symphonic arrangements with changing time signatures. In 1976, Kansas rose to national prominence with its fourth album, “Leftoverture,” which spawned the band’s first hit single, “Carry On Wayward Son.”

Their follow-up album, “Point of Know Return” in 1977, brought Kansas even more success. The record produced the top 10-certified gold single, “Dust in the Wind,” which peaked at No. 6 and helped the band to appear on the Billboard charts for more than 200 weeks throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The band enjoyed continued success into the 1980s, releasing the album “Power” in 1986, which included the No. 19 pop hit “All I Wanted,” the last Kansas single to hit the Billboard Top 40 chart.

Violinist Robby Steinhardt provided a distinctive element to the group’s sound, defined more by heartland rock than the jazz and classical influences which had been followed by most rock violinists. After leaving Kansas in 1982, Steinhardt fronted his own band; he returned in 1996 only to leave a second time in 2006. During his departure from Kansas, violinist David Ragsdale replaced Steinhardt.

Over the years the band has had a revolving-door lineup, but Ragsdale seems to be a permanent fixture in the lineup which includes Ehart, Williams, Ragsdale, Billy Greer on bass, Ronnie Platt on lead vocals and keyboards, and the group’s former lighting director David Manion on keyboards.

Growing up in Columbus, Ga., Ragsdale began playing the violin at a young age. Though he was more interested in the guitar than the violin, Ragsdale said he soon realized how many good guitar players there were, so he thought it may not be a bad idea to go back to the violin. It was Kansas that attracted Ragsdale back to the violin.

“When I was a junior in high school, I was driving down in Columbus and heard Kansas for the first time on the radio, and it was the song ‘Can I Tell You,’ ” he said. “It was a rock band playing a rock song with a violin, and it was rocking. I thought, ‘This is pretty cool.’ ”

After playing with Louise Mandrell in Nashville, Tenn., he joined Kansas in 1991. After years of touring, Ragsdale decide to take a break, leaving the band in 1996, before rejoining them in 2007.

Ragsdale defines the band’s distinctive sound and believes the violin to be the one instrument that makes everything work.

“It’s made a couple of elements really accessible to Kansas that might not come as easily to bands that don’t have that texture,” he said. “There’s that early American, pre-Civil War violin melody or element that is introduced there, along with massive symphonic arrangements. Kerry Livgren listened extensively to symphonic music and borrowed heavily from it. The violin is an instrument admirably suited to those contributions.”

With the days of performing before thousands of people in large stadiums long gone, Ragsdale appreciates the intimacy that a small theater provides for the artist, and for the fans.

“It’s my favorite venue — the small theater. It’s what I really enjoy,” he said. “The acoustics are always great. It doesn’t bounce around and turn it into a gymnasium like the large venues do. The people are right there where you can get at them. You can make eye contact, you can feed off of them, and there’s an energy exchange that starts to happen between the band and the audience.”

At this point in his career, Ragsdale seems to be taking everything in stride.

“I just want to get better as a violinist,” he said. “I still want to go a little further — as far as I can go. I’m certainly not thinking about retirement or anything even remotely like it. As long as I can do it and continue to improve, that’s enough.”

One of the most exciting things for Ragsdale and his bandmates is seeing parents who grew up with their music now bringing their kids to the shows.

“You can pick out one guy, one 14- or 15-year-old kid and watch him just be absorbed in what’s going on,” he said. “I feel that it has largely to do with the fact that today’s popular music so excludes music. There aren’t any musicians, everything is programmed and there’s no musical exploration. Here all of a sudden, are these guys up on stage playing things he’s never seen before, and it’s so fun to watch.”

Knowing there are benefits and pitfalls to what he does for a living, Ragsdale said he feels extremely fortunate when he observes the world around him.

“That question is most easily answered by me anytime I get into a traffic jam,” he said. “I look around and think about the people who are in this traffic jam at this time every day, every single day. I get to avoid that by and large. What we do is tedious but it’s very cool. Compared to what else I could be doing, this is pretty good.”