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Kansas Guitarist Rich Williams: ‘It’s Been a Fantastic Life’

“It’s rare that you find something that your mind, body, hands, instrument, and amplifier are in total synergy; where you pick it up and it sounds exactly the way you hear it in your head. Everything you want to do, you can do. That’s just something special.”

Rich Williams picked up a guitar and never put it down. Because of that, we have the most classic of classic rock songs in our consciousness: “Dust in the Wind,” “Carry On Wayward Son,” and “Song for America,” to name a few. Catching up with him for this feature was a joy and then some, which is why it is imperative to follow-up a reading of the below interview by going to see him and the band live in NJ on April 26.

You are coming back to New Jersey to play the Morristown Performing Arts Center, which is such a gorgeous, recently renovated space. With all these years of touring under your belt, does this New Jersey and New York City area have any significance? Are you extra excited? Am I just extra biased?

Well, since we have played there before, we know that we have a great fan base up in the area. Plus, two of our band members are from Jersey now, so it has kind of become a home state [Laughs]. By the time we get there, too, an old Jersey member will be coming back, so we will have three out of seven on stage there that are from Jersey.

It’ll surely be a great night then! With this being the ongoing 50th anniversary tour, as well, there’s an emphasis on the extensive catalog you all have to choose from. Of course there are songs that fans have to hear and want to hear, but what is it like to make a setlist at all at this point in your career with the catalog you have? 

It wasn’t stressful, but Phil and I just wanted to make sure we covered as much of all of the decades of Kansas and Kansas records as we basically could. We have a bit from the first album, a bit of the last album, and we kind of could just be putting on a history of Kansas music show – that was where it started.

There were certain songs that absolutely had to be there, which filled at least half the set, but then it gave us an opportunity to live a little deeper into the catalog and play things we hadn’t played in over 40 years. It was exciting to make up the setlist. I mean, the show is also longer than a normal set would be, so it gave us the opportunity to add more material.

I can imagine going back into the depth of the catalog of Kansas, and acting as a fan in a way with the rediscovery of it all, helped you get ready to play it.

Yeah, and we are playing a couple deep cuts, so we’re learning those again. We haven’t played some of those songs in 40 years, and they were not chart toppers by any means, but they are rabid-Kansas-fan favorites. It’s always fun. We’ve been [on this tour] for a year now and it’s still fun to play every night. Sometimes the song sits for a while, so when you pull it off the shelf and dust it off and relearn it, it becomes very fresh again. Right now, those are my favorite songs that we’re doing.

Photo by David Carstens

We already know that you’re bringing this tour well into 2025, and Kansas has the new album The Absence of Presence out in the world, too. For you, what is it like to play songs that are so recent compared to playing songs that have four or five decades behind them? Is it cool to play those back to back?

It is, and that’s because you can hear a lot of similarity. We’ve tried to be as true to the Kansas style as possible – like what you hear on Leftoverture. We’re trying to remain in that vein and that style, and much of the new material that is being written now was written for those albums. Of course there has been member changes over the years; Robbie Steiner passed away about three years ago, the original violinist, and Jerry Lipman had a stroke several years ago, so he’s out. Billy Har recently had a heart attack and he’s our drummer, but he’s doing great and he will be back. But so, with all these changes come changes in the approach of playing things. We’re still maintaining the Kansas vibe of what makes us, us, though. We’ve managed to guide our way through that, even though it is hard to remain the same. It’s hard to be yourself so constantly. It’s hard to not drift from that, especially with member changes, but we’ve managed (somehow) to progress in the same direction we were going when we started.

It’s heartwarming, as both a fan and a journalist, to know that the sounds and soul of the music are really what guide you… and by you, I mean personally, and as a whole within Kansas.

Kansas has been around 50 years, which seems like 10 lifetimes on one hand, but it seems like yesterday on the other. We’re still in touch with the members of the past. I wish we could see them more, and once in a while they’ll come out and play the show with us, but it seems like just yesterday that we got together to play with other bar bands back in Kansas. Sometimes we were together, sometimes not. I’d be with Dave and his band, and Phil would be there with that band, but it just eventually accumulated into all of us in this band – the original six of Kansas.

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I find that to be a testament to how music brings people together, but also keeps people together. Like you and Dave and Phil and the rest of the musicians of then and now, it’s the songs and the camaraderie that link us. Generations of fans are now coming out to these shows, and there is history there – history both in and of the band members themselves, much of which is keeping that connection and maintaining the band’s legacy. I have to commend you for navigating that decade after decade.

Well, Phil and I decided a long time ago that this had to be fun and profitable. There’s no reason to go out there and kill ourselves. We’re not getting any younger, so the emphasis is on fun. That’s the true first seed of getting in a band: getting together with your friends. You got this guy who plays bass and you’re starting to take guitar lessons and he met this drummer and all that is just for the fun of it. We were getting together in somebody’s basement and making music together as friends for fun. Then it’s like, “Oh my God, we’ve got all these songs!” Now you start playing proms, then you get a little older and you play the bars and stuff. You drift in and out of different bands, but nobody’s worrying about that at that time, because you’re not considering the possibilities of making records and being world renowned. As you get into your twenties, people are going to college and getting ‘the real job’ in ‘the real world,’ because that is what everybody else is doing. It kind of became the last man standing in our peer group that wanted to still just pursue music, pursue writing our own music and taking an original approach to that music. Still, even then it was always the same thing: you didn’t wanna grow up. I wanted to go out and play in a band with my friends. That helps keep it fresh, too, because we’re out every weekend for the rest of the year pretty much. We would go home for a few days and we couldn’t wait to get back out and see our friends again – that includes the crew! We consider the crew just an integral part of the band. It’s a family, it’s a community, and it’s all with a purpose that it still is the same as that original seed was of just having fun with it. […]

The business side of music is one thing, and going back to the original source like writing an album and recording an album is another process. Then, it’s over, and now you’ve got this album and the joy is always to play it live. We now we’ve got more stuff to play and have fun with [Laughs], which really the true essence of touring. I’ve never wanted to be a musician that had success and then just sat at home and looked at the gold records on the wall.

I think that’s vital to what Kansas is known for, which is beautiful. There’s a reason you’re able to hit the road over 50 years in and not only sell it out, but enjoy every performance and every city and every audience.

It’s all an amazing experience. Ever since Ronnie Platt joined the band almost 10 years ago, we wound up with a new policy, which is was kind of grumbled upon before, but now we enjoy: rehearsing. We show up to the venue early to have an early dinner, then we go right into meet and greet, soundcheck. That leaves us about an hour-and-a-half to rehearse in the dressing room. That’s a fun time; it’s us just loosening up and going through songs. Everybody wants to go through this or that, just run through stuff, and there is a lot of camaraderie in all of that. It gets everybody very comfortable so that by the time the show starts, we’d already been playing for an hour-and-a-half. Everybody is warmed up and comfortable, comfortable with the surroundings, and there’s a lot of levity with all of happens during rehearsals, a lot of laughs. As the process continues, we learn new things to do on stage, before showtime, and with each other for the tours to keep being fun, light, and lively.

Fun, light, and lively – how simple, but prolific. Not only when going into something like the Another Fork in the Road Tour, but also with the latest live album [The Point of No Return: Live and Beyond], there has to be warmth among everything and everyone, so that you’re really able to pick apart how important the music is and how important everything is at this stage in the game.

Yes, and what’s a surprise, but a very pleasant one, is how we celebrate our 50th anniversary. “Let’s select 50 cities and do 50 shows for the 50th anniversary of when the original six got together.” The 50th anniversary was last year of that, now it’s more the 50th anniversary of when the first album came out… and 50 shows just wasn’t enough. There were so many places we wanted to still get to, but hadn’t got to yet. Like in the original first 50, the city of Topeka, Kansas, which is where we came from, hadn’t been played in yet. So we just thought, “In 2024, let’s continue it.” New dates are added every day! We just played in Salina, Kansas, too, and we were there the whole weekend. Two sold-out shows Friday and Saturday. […] These shows are going so extremely well that we didn’t really think that we were going to fill this year with more of the 50th anniversary tour, but at the end of the day, I don’t know how many will wind up doing. It will be over 100, though, for this 50th anniversary celebration, and trust me – we never thought it would last this long,