By Ralph Greco, Jr.
Photos by Ron Lyon
Rich Williams has been the long-standing guitarist in Kansas since the band’s formation in 1973. Along with drummer Phil Ehart, the only other original member still onboard, he is about to hit the road for the Kansas 50th Anniversary Tour – Another Fork In The Road.
Releasing both studio and live albums across the past few years, the band has resumed touring in earnest post-COVID-19. There doesn’t seem to be any stopping the affable Mr. Williams and his band, no matter if he’s wearing overalls or a tux on stage.
I wanted to start right there: Is there ever going to be another Native Window album? I love that record.
I really doubt it. That album was born out of the frustration of not recording. Steve (Walsh, original Kansas vocalist and keyboardist)didn’t want to record any new material. And we were frustrated, the rest of us. So, we said, well, let’s just do something else, right? And, of course, we can’t. We can’t be us. So, we took a left turn just to scratch an itch. Get the creative edge going. That was its purpose. It wasn’t to be a departure, a Plan B., another touring entity. It was just simply being creative for a change because we hadn’t been, in that way, for a while.
So, can one extrapolate from that presently, touring, and making music with Kansas, you’re scratching this itch?
Oh absolutely. We’re talking about doing a new album, but we’ve got so many things going on at the moment. We put out the last two studio albums (2016’s The Prelude Implicit and the 2020’s The Absence Of Presence, and we’d like to do another one. The Another Fork In The Road – 50 Years of Kansas set has just come out, and we are touring that which will go into next year, and I’m sure we will more than likely extend beyond the fifty dates. We’re just; we’re busy, you know? The live album came out recently (2017’s Leftoverture Live & Beyond), so there’s been a lot of creativity going on. So yeah, we were scratching the itch constantly.
It’s amazing to think about how long you guys have been doing this and how well.
It’s so fun. It’s not like, “Oh crap, we’ve got to do a record. What are we gonna do? I don’t wanna do that.” No, it’s like, “OK, here’s the next tour, the next record, what are we gonna do?” Plans change, things move constantly; it’s an ongoing process. We rehearse in the dressing room every night for at least an hour before we go on. And a lot of times, you know, we come up with something brand new. Somebody will play something, and it’s like, “Tell me, what was that? Play that again,” and we’ll record it, a spark of an idea for a song in the future. Getting ready for sound check, Tom (Brislin, Kansas keyboardist) will play something. I’ll say, “What? What did you play?” And so that process of creating is ongoing, and it’s easy when you know the whole team is into it.
I’m always interested when a band has a big catalog like you guys, and you’re on the road a lot. Beyond featuring an entire album like you sometimes do, how do you pick what songs to play?
Well, there’s, you know, half the set list has already chiseled itself; we know the songs we really need to be playing. So, then it’s just a matter of, you know, maybe we’ve kind of beaten this one to death, let’s put it on the shelf for a while. Or, we haven’t played this in a while. Of course, it’s still in flux, but I think as of yesterday, we’ve finalized the setlist. Of course, as soon as I say that, it’s going to change, right? (laughs) And then the Another Fork in the Road – 50 Years of Kansas kind of dictates a direction as well.
I figured that is what you would be led by.
Yeah, we represent each album in the live set as we are, but we noticed yesterday we completely left an album off. So, we take one out because we got too many of those and add in another. So, it’s an ongoing process, making the decisions for us that make sense on a 50th anniversary tour.
So, any surprises this time around when you went back to a song that you hadn’t played in a long time, and you went, “Holy shit, I’m really having a good time playing that tune!”
Well, we haven’t played these live yet, only in rehearsal. Everybody’s doing homework and relearning songs. And I can’t, I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag, what some of these songs are, but there was one. My wife and I just had a deck put on our house. We got some speakers out there, so we just put Kansas on randomly, and this song came on, and it’s like, I haven’t heard that in a long time. ‘Oh man, that’s one of my favorite songs. I love the lead I am playing there.’ So that’s one that was added to the list, and I’m really looking forward to performing that song that hasn’t been done in twenty years, and we have two songs we haven’t played for forty-five years. So, it’s been that kind of a thing, and that is very exciting. It’s kind of like opening Christmas presents that you forgot to open a long time ago.
Certainly, as Kansas has changed and morphed over the years, the onus of you as a guitar player shifts as you are sometimes a single player, then there are other guys playing guitar as well with you. How is it different from years ago when you approach playing these days?
Well, yes, there are some spots, yeah, where it is just me. But then, David Ragsdale (Kansas violinist) is a very good guitarist, and we often are playing together. In a song like “Icarus” for instance, he has to go back and forth from guitar to violin, so that song keeps him busy because he is on off on, off on. But often these days, when I want the sound of two guitars, the technology allows me to create it on stage by just stepping on the right button.
You mention David Ragsdale, and that makes me think of Robbie Steinhardt and his last solo album and the fact that he passed in 2021. Had you spoken to him in a long time? Were you still friends?
We’re still friends with everybody, all the previous members. Robbie, bless him, always marched to the beat of his own drummer, and even though he was out of the band for a while, when we’d play close to his hometown, he’d come up and do a few numbers with us. I’m not sure who the company or the guys were that got him involved with the solo album. They do a lot of projects like this where they put a lot of material together, and then they bring someone in to do it. They did a great job.
Oh yeah, definitely, Not In Kansas Anymore is a very good album.
Yeah, I think so. And I had heard that he had plans to go out and tour it. The project wasn’t put together as a band, so he would have had to assemble one. But, of course, that never came to fruition. But Robbie was a dreamer, always had lots of big dreams. And he loved being a rock star, had the old problem with not always showing up on time; he was always the one we’d have to find. That’s the way it was with him from day one. There’s an old band picture; we’re walking down a country road back in Kansas. Five of us are on one side, and Robbie’s on the other, and we’re all walking toward the camera. That really tells the story of Robbie; he was a part of it, but yeah, a step or two away.
Do you find that the other members who come and go defer to you because you and Phil are the long-standing original members?
Somewhere, within the whole process of being in a band, between original members and the newer guys, there is a difference. But that’s not something we project, and it’s not one we demand. It just simply is. It makes a little bit of difference somewhere, I’m sure, but we do our best…I mean, everybody has an equal voice. Like when Tom Brislin joined the band. He’s always been a side man, but we were very direct with him, saying we’re not looking for a side man. You’re not going to be a sideman with us; we want a band member. And he was like, “Can I submit material I’ve written, you know, is that allowable?” And we were like, of course, we wanted him to do that. So, everybody knows they have an equal voice and, you know, rehearsals and working on material, etcetera, ideas. It’s never a situation where it’s don’t say that to the boss. That’s not a healthy dynamic. By method or just by default, Phil and I are the original guys, but that’s no fault of the other guys.
Can you pick a period or an album that you’d say, “Man, that was when we were firing on all pistons?” A time or album when you really felt Kansas had come into its own?
It happens kind of along the way with a lot of things beyond the original band, even. Something that is always kind of shocking to me is to go back to watch us playing Don Kirshner’s rock concert. We had basically just finished the first album, and suddenly we’re thrust from where we hadn’t really started touring at all yet, and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert is new. We’re thrust upon the stage, right? And they fill the house with all these people and there’s cameras on stage, there’s cameras everywhere. And they have us just start! I mean, we flew in, it’s like we’re gonna be using a backline, but I said, I’m bringing my guitar, bringing my Marshall head. I didn’t even have a case for it. I can still see it rolling down the conveyor belt; it just had a luggage tag on it. And although you’d never know it, we were scared shitless.
And it’s live. That’s the thing lots of people don’t understand. Acts people played live on that show.
Yeah, well, and of course, you know, when I watch it that now it’s like, “My God, what a great band.”
Oh, yeah, you guys were smoking. Really great.
Yeah, but I remember what it felt like and how terrified we all were. I remember there was a camera two feet from Kerry’s hands as he is soling. We were all so terrified, but it doesn’t come off that way. We had been playing in bars, night after night after night. We were tight. We knew the material, played it inside out right so we could play through our fear. And I see that performance, and I think we really never knew what we had.
I know you are aware of how Kansas is one of a rare breed of American progressive bands growing into its own at a time where most of the progressive sound was coming from the U.K. You are even a rarer breed in the unprecedented success you had.
Yeah, there’s always a lot of luck involved, right? And a lot of tenacity involved. And as in anything in the music business, it really required all those elements. The first album did well, the second a little better, the third better than that. But you know Don Kirshner’s (Kansas was signed to Kirshner’s label) coffers were bleeding pretty heavily from supporting three records. I mean, he was a great benefactor, but at that time, the question was, how long can he keep it going? Keep taking it the shorts before he says, ‘Guys, ‘m. I’m done.’ So Leftoverture was a crucial album, and the last song to arrive as we’re working material was “Wayward Son.” And that song just exploded; I mean, it changed everything.
Exploding to this day where it had a crazy second life on the show Supernatural.
Oh yeah, the biggest thing that that’s done is give our career a second explosion. We were starting to notice all these young kids are in the front row. “What’s going on here?” I’d say all the time, “Why are you here? How do you know about us?”
You knew they had used the song, right?
Sure, but I wasn’t familiar with the show. I don’t really watch a lot of just whatever’s on television. And we were not that aware of what it was because it wasn’t the official theme song; it’s the unofficial one. And probably, I don’t know, about maybe ten years ago, we started becoming aware of this. And that show had a 15-year run. International, too. Now those fifteen-year-old kids are in their thirties, and along the way, they have discovered our entire catalog. We added a whole generation or two. And we’re still getting younger kids that are watching Supernatural in reruns for the first time. So that’s been tremendous.
And then there was the famous Comic-Con performance around the show.
It was so cool and yes, from the enormous popularity of that show that they had us play there. They spent a fortune on this, on their presentation, and it started with us. They roll the scene in the show of the guys sitting in their car talking to this room of a couple thousand people. There’s screams all the way around. The excitement is building, the room was insane, and we’re watching from 360 degrees right there on stage, and they play the scene, then there’s this big explosion, and we start “Wayward Son.” The crowd went insane. And meeting the guys from the show, hanging out. They were two of the most humbled, centered human beings I’ve ever met. Such great guys; you would never guess they were some of the biggest stars.
And the Kansas relationship with Supernatural was to have a coda.
Yes, we had such a good relationship with them that they wrote us into the final episode. It was going to be some kind of coming together of all the characters, and I’m not sure what the storyline was, but we were supposed to be playing in a bar on the show. And we were headed to the airport to fly up to film, had just finished that leg of our tour of the whole West Coast, and we were told to turn around because Canada had just closed its borders because of COVID. So, we went home and then Oregon, Washington, and California all that day and the next day closed. Then more in a couple of weeks. So, after a while, when they got back to filming, they did a rewrite, and we weren’t in it, unfortunately.
But then, there’s more; it doesn’t end there, right?
Right. The show was still something we wanted to do; it felt incomplete that we never got the chance to film. So, then there’s this show Walker, a take-off of Walker, Texas Ranger (starring Jared Padalecki, who also starred in Supernatural), and we were playing in Austin, and word came down if we’d like to do a Walker. We had maintained a good relationship with the people involved, so since we were performing in Austin that night, the next afternoon, we shot a Walker, where we were the entertainment for what was supposed to be a Texas Rangers’ convention. So, we got to be with the guys again.
Being in it as long as you guys have, and then COVID and all that stuff, you still seem to be surfing the business rather well, a business that has drastically changed so much in the last few years.
Well, as far as 2022 was concerned, last year was a pretty normal year. And this year will be, knock on wood barns, barring some new strain or something. I’m not gonna worry about the what-ifs. The way things are right now, it looks like it’s going to be a fantastic year. And I’m just gonna go with that. But the music business, um, from a business standpoint, sucks.
Going back to Native Window, the reason to make an album for us now is to scratch that itch. Back in the late seventies and eighties, to put out a record and go gold was extremely common; now, it’s an extreme rarity. Only a certain small, thin portion of the pop people of the day really achieve the big goals now. And that has nothing to do with us and hasn’t since the mid-80s. We’ve been out of that market forever. And so, we really don’t concern ourselves with that part of it. But there is still that need to create, to be relevant, to be still creative, even if it’s only for us. And we also have many fans out there who would like to hear new stuff from us.
Absolutely, me personally.
So, it’s also to satisfy them, to bring, to provide them with something new, to fulfill their curiosity of where we go next. And since there’s no pressure in it, we can continue that process when we want.
We covered a lot of ground, and when I told your PR person I was a big fan and knew if left to my own devices, I could talk your ear off. I have one last one a buddy of mine dared me to ask. It’s a sartorial question that has to do with stage costumes.
OK, go ahead (laughs).
Let’s go back a bit if you could remember…
Tell me about wearing a tux on stage.
I don’t really know exactly what my thought was at the time. When we started out, you know, I’m wearing overalls.
Yes. I remember those. That’s why it always struck me — from overalls to a tux?
People misinterpreted the overalls. Thinking, “Oh, he must have been a farmer. He’s from Kansas. He rolled the tractor to band practice.” I grew up in an upper middle-class family and a very nice home. The only time I was on a farm was when I visited the farm in England where my mother was born, OK? There’s not a farmer bone in my body.
But you know, in the late 60s and stuff, the hippie movement, people were wearing overalls, and that was just what I was wearing. They were comfortable. I wasn’t planning to pick peas. I’d tie them with rubber bands, dunk them in bleach, make some tie-dye on them. Whatever, it was just a fashion statement, nonconformity. But then I thought, “Maybe I’ll wear a tux, just go the other way, right?” So, I did that for a while, but then suddenly everybody, you know, suddenly Kerry’s wearing a karate kimono. Steve is jumping around in a little Adidas outfit. Then Robbie was in his T-shirts, a real non-conformist in all respects. I think he had, like, a thousand T-shirts in his closet.
I cringe when I look back at some of that stuff. Remember, we were from the middle of Kansas; there was no fashion people, you know, the record company didn’t bring somebody in and tell us we had to work on what we wore. We were left to our own devices. And it’s funny now, but we, I mean, we thought we looked cool at the time, but now I look at it and think, we really did look like freaking dorks.
Never dorks to me and always fantastic musicians and a great band. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me.
You too. Thank you very much.