Kansas – Richard Williams

By: Lori Smerilson Carson

Fifty years of fun truly sums up Kansas and the incredible rock music they have created. Since the release of their self-titled debut album in 1974, they’ve released sixteen studio albums, three which reached sextuple-Platinum status and eight that went Gold. In 2020, these extraordinarily talented musicians released The Absence of Presence which features classic Kansas progressive rock sounding singles like “The Absence of Presence”, “Jets Overhead” and “Propulsion 1” as well as their classic more hard rock sound in song “Throwing Mountains”. Now, they have released a 3-CD collection Another Fork in the Road – 50 Years of KANSAS which captures the span of their outstanding career to celebrate their Fiftieth Anniversary, and they are also embarking on a North American tour (of the same name) that South Florida fans can have the pleasure of experiencing on January 19th at the Barbara Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers, FL, on January 20th at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, FL and on January 28th at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Catching up with founding member, Guitarist Richard Williams just prior to the tour, he revealed some details of this new show that he and bandmates fellow founding member, Drummer Phil Ehart, Vocalist/Keyboardist Ronnie Platt, Bassist/Vocalist Billy Greer, Violinist/Guitarist David Ragsdale and Keyboardist/Vocalist Tom Brislin will be bringing to town. He also disclosed some details about the new music releases, a bit about his past and what fans can look forward to.

SFL Music: What can fans look forward to with this new tour, Another Fork in the Road?
Richard Williams: Well, what’s a little different, it’s going to be us. We won’t be doing anybody else. So many times, you’re promoting a new album and well, we do have a new album out, ANOTHER FORK IN THE ROAD. What it is, is a culmination of songs from the very first album until our last. So, the album covers our entire history and so will the tour. We’re going to try to cover songs from every album throughout our fifty years. So, that’s what we’re going to be doing and these types of shows attract, it’s not just the casual Kansas listener. It is hard core fans that will be familiar with ninety-nine percent of what we’re doing. So, that’s a lot of fun for us to be able to go into deeper cuts. Older cuts that we haven’t performed in a long time. So, it’s different in that way. We’ll be doing things that we haven’t played in maybe forty-five years. We’re touching on songs we haven’t touched in thirty plus years, so again, that’s what’s gonna be different about this and we’re looking forward to that. It’s a lot of homework. I’m in my guitar studio right now trying to learn songs I haven’t played for a long time. That’s part of the process and its actually really fun to re-discover what you once did.

SFL Music: You have a new version of the song “Can I Tell You”, which was originally from your 1974 debut album. What inspired you guys to do that?
Williams: Well, that was the song that caught Don Kirshner’s ear and got us a recording deal. Without that song, there would have been no interest and Don Kirshner was the only offer we ever got. So, in just paying respect for that song in that time, we thought it would be a very good end piece. Something that if we’re going to put a bonus track on, why wouldn’t it be that? Just to pay honor to what that song meant to us and how important it was to do a re-record of it with the line-up today. We really wanted to do it and we didn’t want to do it as “Can I Tell You” 2.1 in a modern re-write and all that. We wanted to do it as it was written, and as much to as it was recorded as we could. So, that was the approach and it was also, can we do this remotely cause a lot of that was during COVID, recording and the process. I did all my parts right where I’m sitting right now. Everybody did it from their home studios. An experiment to see if we could, and the further we got along with it, I mean yeah, we could record this way. That was fun and exciting. So, it was just a lot of fun to have a project in the down time.

SFL Music: Is that what inspired the album The Absence of Presence?
Williams: Actually, that title was an accident. We had recorded that, finished it. It was all done, art work, everything and then COVID hit and so, do we put it out? At the time, COVID was going to be a couple of weeks, maybe a month and then its gonna kind of go away. Then oh, it might be a couple more months. Well, it looks like it’s not quite yet, and that narrative continued for eighteen months. We didn’t know at the time when the album was finished, sure let’s put it out. Of course, we had a new album. We were excited to get it out on the market. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to tour that album. After eighteen months, we didn’t know if we were ever going to tour again. Nobody had any idea what the new normal was going to be. Personally, my wife and I moved from Atlanta to the mountains of North Carolina where we are now just to be away from a big city and in the peace and quiet of the mountains. Best thing I ever did ‘cause now when we get off the road, I just look out the window and look at deer and wild turkey and wild life. I look out of the kitchen window, there’s Grandfather Mountain. It’s beautiful here.

SFL Music: That’s nice. Is that the same place you told me about in our last interview that you went on vacation to? A college town?
Williams: Well yeah, Boone. Boone, North Carolina is fifteen miles away and that’s where Appalachian State (University) is and it’s just got your college town vibe. So, everything we really need is there, but we don’t really go that far. I’m not Grizzly Adams. It’s a gated community. We’re on two acres. It’s very civilized here. The hospital is two miles away. The grocery store is two miles away. We discovered this area probably eight years ago in looking for a place for a weekend get-a-way because my daughter was in the Navy at Norfolk, Virginia at the time. My wife’s family was in the Wake Forest, North Carolina area and it was closer for them to visit us here than to go all the way to Atlanta. And then we fell in love with the area. It’s funny because my wife is an Outlander fan. She was reading the books as they came out long before the T.V. series. When they come to America, its right here. I mean, we basically live on Fraser’s ridge (he laughed). So, it’s funny how things work out. I don’t know if it’s the secret or what, but we wound up in the place she always dreamed of being.

SFL Music: On This tour, you’re starting in Pittsburgh and then ending in Fort Lauderdale. Was there any rhyme or reason of why you chose to start in Pittsburgh and end in Fort Lauderdale or did it just work out that way?
Williams: Well, the end is really unknown. That is kind of the end at the moment, but when we did the Leftoverture Anniversary and when we did the Point of Know Return Anniversary, each one of those went about a year longer than we thought. I’m sure this one is going to go beyond that, but right now we’re gonna worry about these first fifty shows because that takes us into next year. Picking the beginning, I am not really sure if it was completely intentional, and so much if that has to do with routing and the promoter and how he’s assembling things, but it’s appropriate because we’re playing at the Benedum, is such an incredible theater, but we have a very rich history there. Pittsburgh, that was one of the towns that really broke us. We were far more popular in Pennsylvania and in Pittsburgh than we were back home in Kansas. That was the first state that really broke us and the Benedum, which was the old Stanley Theater. The first time we went to Pittsburgh was to play in the Stanley Theater for Rich Engler. We were opening for somebody and the show was sold out. Well, somebody in the headlining band got sick and so Rich went to cancel the show. Well, nobody wanted refunds. We said, what? He said, “yeah, you guys are headlining.” We had no idea until we arrived and it was mayhem. We never witnessed anything like that before for us onstage. So, that was our beginning history and love of playing in Pittsburgh and in Pennsylvania was through that venue. We also did our fortieth anniversary show at the Benedum, and so it makes sense to start this there. Its where we started. That’s the first time we ever headlined anything outside of a bar (he laughed). So, we have a very rich history with Rich Enlger and the Benedum and from what I understand is, if anybody wants to go, get your tickets because it’s going really quickly.

SFL Music: The last time we spoke you talked about how you toured, where you’d play over the weekend and go home during the week so you didn’t burn out. Are you touring similarly? Are you taking little breaks like last time?
Williams: Well, that is what we call the Kansas mode, where I’m going to leave generally on a Thursday. Fly to the city we’re playing on Friday. So, you wake up there and you have all day to get prepared. You play there. The Saturday show was drivable. Drive there, did the show. Fly home Sunday. So, then you have Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday at home and Sunday evening, and then you repeat and you do that weekend, after weekend. It is a much healthier way, at least we have found. Our crew loves it. Everybody in the band loves it. Touring in a bus, as romantic and fun as that sounds is, you roam in from city to city for two months before you can get to go home. If somebody gets sick, everybody gets sick. In your twenties its exciting. It’s a big party, but riding around with a bunch of grumpy old men that don’t want to be in a bus, is just not that exciting. The romance of it isn’t reality. Reality is a whole lot of boredom and missing home.

SFL Music: How did the 3-CD collection (Another Fork in the Road – 50 Years of KANSAS) with the new version of “Can I Tell You”, come about?
Williams: Actually, we wanted to do something for the Fiftieth of course, but it was actually InsideOut (Music) and Thomas Waber the president and CEO of that record label that approached us and said, “I really want to do this,” which it’s still wonderful to have a record company that starts off as fans and that are so eager to be a part of something. They carried the ball on this and they suggested and Phil and I agreed, let us put this together. It’s going to be stuff from your entire catalogue. We don’t need another best of album. There are plenty of ‘em out there. Live albums with us playing. They said, “let us put something together from a fans perspective.” Them being big fans, and so we said, sure. We want of course, to have input if there’s something we really don’t want on it, but they did it. They wanted to let us throw out ideas for the album cover. Sure, go ahead and we will make suggestions and changes along the way, but we let them carry the ball on that. We wanted something special to commemorate fifty years, and I think they did a great job in leading the way with that and sort of taking it out of our hands. It’s a little too personal for us I think, to have been objective. They’re taking it from a fan’s perspective.

SFL Music: Is there anything from the latest live album Point Of Know Return Live & Beyond (featuring songs like “Dust in the Wind”)?
Williams: I know there is a live cut on there, but I’m not sure from where. I don’t recall. Now, this tour is of the same title Another Fork in the Road which is going to be in support of the fiftieth anniversary album and the song selection is going to follow along with that idea of representing our entire history.

SFL Music: What would you say is the key to having a long career? Like you said, Phil is still in the band with you. What would you say is the secret to the longevity and success of Kansas?
Williams: I can only speak personally for myself on that. Before I even had a guitar and took lessons, there was an unknown yet known understanding that I needed to be a part of something. I can remember lying in bed one night and there was a block party. It was one summer night, had the windows down, and I was hearing this music come drifting from the patio on the next block over as they were having this little block party, and there’s something coming through the window that it grabbed me. It wasn’t just the music, but I remember the song was a “Land of 1000 Dances” and I just at once was, what would that be like? You know, it must be so exciting to be in a band and doing this. Being with your friends and making music, but they go all over the place. These people are traveling all around town and playing different places. They’re even going out of the state in their renovated school bus, and I sort of signed up for that in my head a couple years before I even got a guitar. Then the catalyst to push me over the edge was like so many, it was The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and with that moment, the world was lit on fire. Everybody wanted to be a musician. Topeka, Kansas was as much so if not more so than anywhere, and there was a garage band on every block. I got a guitar and I was in a band. Phil and I. First band I was ever in was junior year of high school in 1967 with Phil Ehart, and I just wanted to do that. I wanted to be a part of it, to be with the guys. I found my place back then. I never really wanted to do anything else. I always realized what a great life and opportunity this is and the grass was never greener for me anywhere. What else would I do? Retire? Play golf? So, it has really just been simply waking up, taking the next step forward every day, and it amassed into fifty years. It wasn’t a goal, but it wasn’t not a goal. It was just an assumption that this is what I do. This is what I will always do. So, really it was just following my heart. It wasn’t a sacrifice. It wasn’t so much a big decision. It’s just, I just kept wandering down the path.

SFL Music: Is that was inspired you to become a professional musician, hearing that music from the block party?
Williams: Yeah.

SFL Music: What would you recommend to an up-and-coming musician? To a new musician?
Williams: A, expect a lot of bad times, but you need to learn to roll the punches. If you’re in there for just good times, party and all the success and money, your odds are really slim. Find your passion. I don’t care what your passion is, whatever it might be and do that. If you expect to jump into this for instant fame and success, it’s a lot of hard work. A lot of heartbreak, but it’s something you got to be all in. So, I would say A, find out what you want to do and do that. If that is music, great! The most important part I have found in all that is, I mean, I was aware and am aware that there are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of guitar players that are a lot better than me, but I’m a good guy to be in a band with. I’m loyal. I’m always there. I’m creative. Usually if you get the best guitar player in town, the best drummer in town, odds are he’s a jerk. He’ll probably think that you suck and you’re holding him back and he’s gonna be gone soon anyway. For a musician, surround yourself with friends. People that are like minded. That have you know, things in common with. Styles in common. You can speak together musically and even more importantly, just to be hanging out with because you spend most of your time not playing music. It’s just you know, hanging out. They have to be people you can get along with. Be friends with. So, that’s important. Now, if success comes from that, that’s great, but if it turns out to be a hobby and you spend years of your life making music with friends, that’s pretty cool! So, do it for the right reasons. Do it with friends and you really can’t go wrong there. You might have to keep the day job.

SFL Music: I saw the video for “The Absence of Presence”. I like the psychedelic artwork and the landscape and sky and everything. The symbolism. Are there going to be more new videos coming out for fans to look forward to?
Williams: Good question. This is all so new. Usually that does happen. People keep asking me the question, what about vinyl? Well, of course we’ll put out vinyl, but vinyl is a rarity at the moment. We’re way down the list. We’re probably six months away from getting to the top of the list. Nobody can get vinyl made. There’s just not that many people that do it anymore and there is a lot of requests for it, for everything released. So, we’re waiting our turn for vinyl and we didn’t want to wait to finish this project and then wait a year. Why would we have the fiftieth anniversary in our fifty-first year (he laughed). So, we’ll release the CD’s now and eventually vinyl will come out, but that’s not in our control. All we can do is wait our turn.

SFL Music: Was there anything else for fans to look forward to?
Williams: To look forward to. I don’t like to jump beyond projects because that takes us years down the road, but ok. It is now a year from now and we’re getting close to wrapping up this tour, perhaps. We are also working on material for a new record. Of course, that takes time. We have to take the time off of the road to write it and record it, but we are working on that. So, what’s to look forward to is a new record eventually when we can get to it, and there is no end in sight. Is not like oh, fifty years. Let’s wrap it up. No. That’s not even in the conversation. So yeah, I’ll be doing this until I can’t. So, hopefully there will be a sixtieth (he laughed). And again, why not? This is fun.

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