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David Ragsdale experiences Kansas from both sides of the music

David Ragsdale really didn't want to learn violin; he did it for his mom. Turns out mom knew best, as his fiddle skills became his ticket in to Kansas.

By Jeb Wright

Like the band he eventually joined, David Ragsdale’s path to musical glory didn’t come from the glittering streets of Hollywood. Far from it, as Rags, as he is affectionately known, came from the state of Georgia. Like his band mates in Kansas, both found “great art from a deprived environment.” When original violinist, Robby Steinhardt, left Kansas, Ragsdale replaced him, twice, actually.

An amazing musical talent with an equally delightful personality, Ragsdale always seems have a smile on his face and is as at home onstage as he is taking pictures and signing autographs for fans.

His musical skill not withstanding, what is perhaps most impressive about Ragsdale is the fact that he is both appreciative and humbled for the opportunity to perform the music of Kansas. Simply put, Rags can play the hell out of a violin, and he’s a cool dude to boot. In the interview that follows, Rags reveals how he wound up being a rock violinist, how he made it into the band and the fine line between “stalking” and “persistence” when it comes to getting the attention of the musicians you admire.

GM: Even though you were not in the band when it first headlined that gig in Pennsylvania, it is such a cool story. How cool is it going to be for you to revisit such an important part of Kansas history?
David Ragsdale: I never thought — back in high school listening to Kansas with my buds and band mates — that I would be helping the band celebrate their 40th anniversary, much less participating in it.

GM: As a violin player, you must have been influenced by founding Kansas member Robby Steinhardt. Do you remember hearing Kansas for the first time?
DR: When I was a kid, the last thing in the world I wanted to be was a violin player. That was my mom’s desire. Mine was to be a guitarist.

By the time I was 16, I was developing competence on the guitar, and the violin had become a bit of an afterthought, until one day, I was in my car with the radio on and for the first time I heard Kansas. I’m almost positive the song was “Can I Tell You.” That was the first time I remember thinking, “Hey, maybe this violin thing isn’t such a bad idea after all.”
I had heard Jerry Goodman’s work with The Flock and The Mahavishnu Orchestra, but this was a flat-out rock tune I was hearing, and I really dug Robby’s treatment of it. That moment had a lot to do with me beginning to take the violin more seriously and rethinking my strategy.

David Ragsdale photo by Courtni Meadows

When David Ragsdale was a kid, the last thing he wanted to be was a violin player; that was all his mom’s idea. But things changed when Ragsdale heard Kansas for the first time on his car radio. “I remember thinking, ‘Hey, maybe this violin thing isn’t such a bad idea after all,’” he says. Courtni Meadows photo

GM: Tell me how you got the gig in Kansas.
DR: When Kansas released “Power,” I was floored to learn this incarnation included no violinist! Kansas had added Steve Morse to the band with his history, which included violin.
I remember listening to the album for the first time and actually hearing the parts that weren’t there in my head. A friend of mine talked me into pulling out my 4-track cassette recorder and adding those parts in, which I did. That was the easy part. The chore began as I attempted to actually deliver the product. I can remember getting Mark O’Connor’s [Dixie Dregs] number from the Nashville Union and trying to get Morse’s number from him. I was, maybe, overly persistent, and he ended up hanging up on me.
In retrospect, I don’t blame him at all, but it was kind of heartbreaking. Finally, it turned out that another friend of mine was an acquaintance of Kansas’ accountant, and through that connection I got a copy to Phil [Ehart]. He gave me a call and offered me praise and encouragement, but no gig. He did give me his number, though, so after another four years of incessant whining, he relented, more to get me off his back than anything else, I’m sure.

GM: You are a trained musician, so were you shocked to learn that a lot of the complex music was written by these guys who went to high school together in Topeka?
DR: I never really thought about it that way. I was in Columbus, Ga., at the time, a smaller and perhaps even more artistically challenged environment. But my circle of friends and band mates were fairly musically advanced, at least in taste, so great art from a deprived environment didn’t surprise me that much. I will say, though, that it was awfully cool to hear an American band making that kind of offering.

GM: As a virtuoso, give us a lesson in Kansas music in general, from a scholarly standpoint.
DR: The construction of a good number of the songs; it’s like being back in Form and Analysis class. A bombastic, or grandiose intro, followed by a classic rock song formula, verse, chorus verse etc., then a very complex and very well-constructed development section. There’s usually a bridge, or some transition back into a chorus; then the song will end in a coda of some sort. It’s really fun how many of the songs follow this design, or one very much like it. Beethoven would have approved of the form, I believe.

GM: If I am correct, the first Kansas album you were on was “Live At The Whisky.” There are a few quirks on the album, but the sound of the album is incredible.
DR: That was a great gig, very exiting to be in such a legendary house where so many greats have played. It was a very pro shoot, with all the cool cameras and equipment, and I was still new enough at that time to be a little blown away with it all. The band was absolutely spectacular, too.
At that time, we were averaging probably 150 to 200 shows a year, so we had all the reps and could do the show cold. We were really good, and what’s more, we knew it.

GM: You have to play Robby’s key parts verbatim. However, you also play guitar, and you have some room now and again to jam out on the violin. Tell me how you are able to keep it true and add some Ragsdale movements in.
DR: With thought, caution, respect and deep humility.

GM: “Freaks of Nature” was an underrated album, and you shined on it. Tell me about some of your favorite moments on it, and please share about the song “Black Fathom 4.”
DR: I went into that album very well rehearsed and ready to go. The one thing I wasn’t at all ready for was my solo on the title cut. When it came time for it, I was still floundering a little. At that point, Rich [Williams] put on a producer’s hat and ended up coaching me through one of my favorite solos ever. That was my favorite moment.
“BF4” was a really cool song and was very fun to record. I somehow fumbled out this idea for either a round, or a fugato section; I’m not sure how it would be classified. And Steve bought into it, and it was included. “BF4” was also a really fun song to play live.

GM: You left the band, and then in 2006, you came back. What’s the story?
DR: It mainly boils down to spending 10 years of my life on a bus, I think. Four-and-a-half years with Louise Mandrell, and then six with Kansas, and it just caught up with me. I was losing a little bit of my mind and just needed to step away from the life for a bit. I never did find that part of my mind again, though. I ended up going out to Vegas and losing a bit more of it, actually. I don’t quite remember if they twisted my arm, or I twisted theirs. Bottom line, if you’re going to lose your mind anyway, might as well do it in style.

GM: “There’s No Place Like Home” was a kind of reunion of sorts in the band’s hometown. You played a violin duet with guitarist extraordinaire Steve Morse. How did that come up? Steve looked nervous having to play with you.
DR: I don’t think Steve has ever been nervous in his life. Preoccupied perhaps. That was probably the first time he had played the violin since ’91 when we used to do that every night. I was probably more nervous than he was.

GM: Would you have the guts to do a guitar duet with Steve Morse?
DR: No.

GM: What is your favorite Kansas album that you are not on, and why?
DR: Pretty much all of them. And why not?

GM: What is it like to replace Robby Steinhardt?
DR: Robby, whom I have known the least of all the ex-members of Kansas, is a true innovator who brought an entirely new approach to the instrument.
I was a big fan of Goodman, Grapelli and Ponty, but Robby’s presentation really rocked. While perfectly capable of maintaining the florid nature of the instrument when called upon, it‘s great to hear the Bud-and-a-Marlboro treatment when the mood demands it, and ever so often in Kansas music, it does. It’s an honor to stumble along in his oversized shoes, and I’m grateful to him and the rest of the guys for letting the privilege fall to me.

GM: You and Rich do some awesome stuff, both on your call and response on the guitar and violin and also harmony runs you play together. How hard is it to rip those solos in time with each other when you play? And what is the most challenging part of the set for you?
DR: It’s not as hard as it is fun, and Rich makes anything fun more fun. The hardest part of the set, for me, is not getting too excited. When that happens, I have a tendency to push, and this set is hard enough at the tempo it’s supposed to be without making that happen. GM