(NOTE: This article will appear in the March 8 edition of 72Hours, in print and online.)
KANSAS has established itself as one of America’s iconic classic rock bands. This legendary group has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide and is best known for their million-selling gold singles “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind.” The band’s career spans more than 40 years.
“Forty-five, actually,” said Richard Williams, guitarist and one of two original band members still with the band. Drummer Phil Ehart is the other. The two have been friends since high school in Topeka, Kansas.
KANSAS is crisscrossing the country on tour performing more than 90 shows a year. “This year we’re going to back that off a hair,” said the 68-year-old Williams in a recent phone interview. “We were getting into the 90s and that is a bit of a strain.”
The current tour stops at The Event Center at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, in Charles Town, West Virginia, at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 10. Tickets start at $50; www.hollywoodcasinocharlestown.com.
In 2017, the band toured to mark the 40th anniversary of their sextuple-platinum breakthrough album “Leftoverture” and the release of their new studio album “The Prelude Implicit” (2016). It was their biggest headlining tour in decades and fan reaction was so great that they released the live album “Leftoverture Live & Beyond” (November 2017).
In the years before “Prelude Implicit,” the band experienced some major changes including the retirement of longtime lead vocalist Steve Walsh in 2014. All 10 tracks on this album were written by the band and the album was co-produced by Zak Rizvi, Ehart and Williams. Rizvi is now a guitarist and Ronnie Platt, a former technician for the band, is the lead vocalist and keyboardist who replaced Walsh. Bassist/vocalist Billy Greer, keyboardist David Manion and violinist (essential to the KANSAS sound!) is David Ragsdale round out the current band lineup.
“This is definitely a KANSAS album,” said Williams. “‘Prelude’ is the introduction of something. ‘Implicit’ means without question. This was absolutely a new beginning for this band.”
It was their first studio release in 16 years … but hold on … there is more music to come.
“We’re going to do another record,” Williams said. “We’ve been working so hard the last three years.” Band members recently traveled to a resort in Florida for five days of intensive songwriting together. “We will start recording this coming winter,” he said.
With Walsh’s retirement due to vocal problems, the band was able to open up more of the classic KANSAS catalog in live shows. “The last 15, 16, 17 years our sets were limited. Steve either couldn’t sing or didn’t want to sing (some of the songs). He had vocal struggles for a while. His voice started sagging,” said Williams. “You hate to see somebody go. We needed to wait for him to say it’s time. Steve Walsh is one of the greatest rock singers of all time!”
Another founding member, Kerry Livgren, was the band’s primary songwriter. He wrote the iconic “Dust in the Wind.”
“He came in the studio and said ‘I’ve got a song but you probably won’t like it. I just want to throw it on the pile (of possible songs to record).’ He played it on acoustic guitar and on the first listen I knew we had something,” Williams said. It appears on the 1977 album “Point of No Return.” The song is a meditation on Bible verses in Ecclesiastes and Genesis 3:19. In 1979, Livgren became an evangelical Christian and three KANSAS albums later left the band.
While the “Leftoverture” tour featured the more obscure, deeper cuts from KANSAS albums for the “hard-core fans,” the current tour hits the hits, the classics that even the casual KANSAS fan will know. This tour will continue through 2020, he said.
“It’s all the songs you heard on the radio, MTV, Don Kirshner … songs that were in the top 100 that are familiar to everyone,” Williams said. “We’ve never done a tour like this before.”
All the years of touring with KANSAS has not been, as some people think, a scacrifice, he said.
“I always wanted to do what I do,” Williams said. “There’s no sacrifice to this. I just happen to be one of the lucky ones.”
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What is Richard Williams’ Maryland connection?
Williams’ wife, Debbie, was born in Cheverly, Md., and grew up in Sterling, Virginia. They met, where else, but at a KANSAS concert.
“She had been a KANSAS fan forever and we were playing in Atlanta,” Williams said. “Debbie, her daughter and her daughter’s daughter had all been listening to KANSAS music and all decided to come to the show together. A friend said there were three generations of fans in the audience, which doesn’t happen every day.” He met them and when he met Debbie, “sparks flew instantly,” and we’ve been inseparable for 10 years.”
Why does he wear an eye patch?
As a youngster, Williams lost his eye in a fireworks accident. He used to wear a prosthetic eye but it was uncomfortable. Now he wears an eye patch.
Music was his passion and, he said, “After doing this for 30 years or so I figured this was what I was going to do.”
But Williams did have a couple of “real” jobs as a teen.
“Music is not all I’ve done,” he said. “I worked at a bowling alley. I was 15 and I just started bowling. They were refinishing the lanes. I loved that job and it was fun to see behind the scenes at the bowling alley.
In his college days, Williams sold firewood. “It started with a chainsaw (and cutting wood). Then I found a wood mill where I could pick up a truckload of wood and sell it. That was beer money.”
And in later years, he helped a friend who had a redwood deck company. “I designed and built decks,” he said. “I learned how hard it was to earn a hundred bucks swinging a hammer. I didn’t need the money, I just wanted to do it.”
Carrying on KANSAS through the changes
“Coming from the Midwest, and from my dad, when you start something you commit to it and follow it through,” Williams said. “I always wanted to do what I do; some decided ‘I don’t want to do it again.’ So I say good luck to you” and carry on.
Williams said he can’t say if he’s having more fun now with the band than he did in the early years because then it was all new experiences and he had no measuring stick to compare it to.
“Every experience was a new one,” he said. “I had no sense of appreciation for it at the time. In your 20s, you just devour stuff, whereas now you appreciate it more.”
On the road
No tour bus for this band — it’s flying only.
“We don’t do buses,” Williams said. “You get on a bus and you’re gone. You can’t go somewhere for three show sand go home; you’re on the road for three or four months, home for a bit, then leave.” With flying, he leaves on Thursday, drives to the next concert stop, then flies back home.
“It keeps everything fresh and fun and you’re not away from home that much.”