Classic Rockers Kansas Find a Way to 'Carry On'

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Like many bands that are just starting out, Kansas faced its share of obstacles as it was on the way to eventual success. But for guitarist Richard Williams, it came down to teamwork and sharing a common goal when it came to accomplishing the things necessary to get to where it wanted to go as a group.

“You have to love to do it. We were people of a like mind that this is what you do, this is what you want to do and this is what you love to do,” Williams says during a recent phone conversation. “You just put one foot in front of the next and take on the next challenge and bit by bit, you wind up standing where you never thought you’d be.”

Sometimes, that meant standing in some pretty strange places. The stormy photo of the band that’s immortalized on the back cover of their debut album was the result of a long and frustrating photo shoot that seemed ill-fated from the moment that group members found themselves being photographed initially in a local McDonald’s. And there were no shortage of other instances that might have left some people wondering what they had gotten themselves into.

But thankfully, they also had their share of fortunate events and they struck gold with some of the songs that they were writing — songs that would occasionally reveal themselves at unexpected points. “Carry On Wayward Son,” now a monster Kansas classic, came late in the game and was the last song written for their 1976 Leftoverture album. Meanwhile, “Dust in the Wind,” which the group refers to as the “biggest song for the band and one of the biggest songs ever,” began as a simple finger exercise on guitar as guitarist/violinist Kerry Livgren was working to develop his fingerpicking skills.

“We were so innocent to the whole thing. It wasn’t really hard to keep a level head through it all. You know, growing up in the Midwest, we were just kind of humbled by all of it anyway,” Williams says. “I think the hardest part was just kind of recognizing what we were doing. I remember reading a quote by John Elefante, who was with the band later on for a couple of albums. It was after he was out of the band and somebody was asking about what it was like and he said, ‘You know, the one thing those guys just never realized was how big they were.’

“John did, because he came from the outside,” Williams continues. “And I kind of still don’t — I’m in awe of what we’ve done, but it’s hard for me as an individual to really believe it. I look at our legacy of what we’ve achieved in the last 42 years and I find it quite remarkable. It’s kind of surreal to even imagine that it’s me.”

Williams and the original members of Kansas had a chance to look back and consider the seemingly unlikely sequence of events that led them out of Topeka, Kansas in the new documentary Miracles Out Of Nowhere that was released earlier this year. In the film, some heavy hitters testify to the power of the music of Kansas, including Garth Brooks, Queen guitarist Brian May and album producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC). Understandably, Williams still has a little bit of a hard time reconciling the fact that those people are talking about his band.

“You know, watching Garth Brooks, it’s hard to find too many people possibly more famous than that. To hear him just gush about us, again, it’s just like, I watch this and I’m going, ‘This is awesome,’ but then it’s like, ‘He’s talking about us,” he says. “And it’s just hard to believe, really. You know, growing up in Topeka and playing the cover music of the times, you had your heroes of all of these people and they weren’t real — they were mentors, they were gods to you. To be put anywhere on a level of all of the people that you admired getting started, it’s an impossible transition for me to make. You know, you think of the Beatles and all of these people, they’re superhuman in your mind and to have anyone that places you, a simple mortal man, in that position, it’s like, ‘No, no, wait a minute! No, that’s no us — we’re just some schmucks from Kansas!’”

Today, Williams and drummer Phil Ehart carry forward with Kansas, surrounded by longtime bassist/vocalist Billy Greer, David Ragsdale on violin and additional guitars, keyboardist David Manlon and vocalist Ronnie Platt, who replaced original Kansas frontman Steve Walsh last year. Platt’s addition is something that has really brought an exciting new energy to Kansas, according to Williams.

“I loved Steve Walsh — he had the best voice in rock ’n’ roll in my opinion. But you know, Steve was….you have to be all in and he had poured his guts out on the stages all over the world for over 40 years,” the guitarist points out. “He earned the right to say, ‘Guys, I don’t think I’ve got the heart to do this anymore.’ That was tough, but having someone in now that is hungry and really wants to do this, there is no barricade.”

As a result of the change, Williams says that the band has a lot of things on deck including plans to begin recording a new album next January.

“Anything we want to do — let’s go to South America, let’s go to Europe...let’s record an album. Let’s get together and just work up material — every little thing is followed by a ‘Let’s do that!’ response,” he says. “That inspires the crew members, that inspires the fanbase….the old dogs in the band get excited. It’s contagious, that type of attitude. So we’re just out having the best time we’ve had in years and years and years. This is going to be the busiest year we’ve had. We’re going to do upwards of 90 dates this year, which we haven’t done since we did the first couple of albums when we were out playing every show that we could.”

Kansas, 8 p.m. Friday, May 8, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd., 330-908-7625. Tickets: $32.50-$57.50,
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