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Photo credit: David Carstens

According to a recent press release: America’s preeminent progressive rock band, KANSAS, will be touring 50 select North American cities to celebrate the band’s 50th Anniversary. KANSAS 50th Anniversary Tour–Another Fork in the Road will showcase music spanning all 50 years of the band’s illustrious history. The tour will showcase two hours of hits, fan favorites, and deep cuts rarely performed live. In 1973, the “garage band” from Topeka was discovered by Wally Gold, signed by Don Kirshner, and released their debut album in 1974. KANSAS has gone on to compile a catalogue that includes sixteen studio albums and five live albums. KANSAS has produced eight gold albums, three sextuple-Platinum albums (Leftoverture, Point of Know Return, Best of KANSAS), one platinum live album (Two for the Show), one quadruple-Platinum single “Carry On Wayward Son,” and another triple-Platinum single “Dust in the Wind.” Most recently, KANSAS has released two Billboard charting albums with 2016’s The Prelude Implicit and 2020’s The Absence of Presence. KANSAS is currently comprised of original drummer Phil Ehart, bassist/vocalist Billy Greer, vocalist/keyboardist Ronnie Platt, violinist/guitarist David Ragsdale, keyboardist/vocalist Tom Brislin, and original guitarist Richard Williams. With no signs of slowing down, KANSAS continues to perform in front of large and enthusiastic audiences.” We get bassist Billy Greer to discuss new music, old music, touring, and much more…

Toddstar: Thank you for taking time out. I know you guys are busy recharging at home a little bit before you hit a few more days on the road after being in the cold, chilly north.

Billy: Man, we were all the way in North Dakota for a few days, and up in upper Minnesota, real close to Canada in both states.

Toddstar: You’ve got a few more dates and then you guys venture out on quite the accomplishment, the 50th anniversary Another Fork in the Road Tour.

Billy: Can you believe that? Man, that’s incredible. When I say it out loud and hear myself say it.

Toddstar: Tell us about this tour. What does it mean to you to be out there celebrating 50 years of Kansas?

Billy: Well, it means a lot of hard work, of longevity, pushing through the rough times to see better times. Also, the continued draw of the band and the support that we’ve got from the base of fans that we’ve made from the very early days from when the original six just toured all the time, and developed this fan base that’s still out there, and those big songs that we had that were hits around the world that keep us in the public ear on radio today. All those things combined, and it’s just been a great career for everybody.

Toddstar: You hit on a lot of great points there and let’s drive home one of the biggest ones – the hits and the fan favorites. Unfortunately, Kansas was never one of those hit machines.

Billy: Yes, we were lucky enough. For most bands, the second time is a charm as far as hitting the big time or whatever. For Kansas, the fourth time was the charm. It wasn’t until the fourth album that we had a breaking hit record that made the charts, and that’s what put the band in the position to start playing and headlining arenas. Before that, they still had a good fan base, I’m talking about before I was a member of the band, the original six. They put out those first three albums and they didn’t have a big hit, but they got some radio airplay, and they went out and toured, and set up that base of fans that became devoted fans no matter what they put out there like those deep tracks that were progressive and weren’t like the normal hits that you would hear on the radio.

Photo credit: Emily Butler Photography

Toddstar: You mentioned something interesting in that you weren’t one of the original six, but looking back, you’ve been there longer than the original six were together.

Billy: Yes, I’ve been there a lot longer than the original six. I joined in 1985, so in July I will have been a member for 38 years.

Toddstar: You’re working on almost 40 years with the band. There are so many bands that don’t make it for 40 years.

Billy: I know. I consider myself lucky. There have been a couple of incarnations along the way, but we’ve managed to push through the rough times. I was part of those rough times. In the 90’s when grunge became the flavor of the month, that set us on us a course for doom. Our record company dropped us, and our manager quit and went to work for Oliver Stone as his musical director. The promoters said, “Well, I’m sorry we can’t book you. We can’t find you places to play.” Luckily this German promoter called us up after the band had pretty much said, “Well, we don’t know what to do.” Everybody was just sitting around twirling their thumbs. This German guy said, “Put as many original members as you can and come over to Germany. I’ve got a two-week tour laid out that I want you to play.” That’s what happened – Dave (Hope) and Kerry (Livgren) came back, and I stayed on, so we had Dave and myself, two bass players. We swapped off, and I was more of the singer than Dave was, so I was still able to show off my vocal abilities. We went on that tour for two weeks and then we came back. Dave stayed around for a couple gigs back in the States, and then he went back to his church because he was a pastor in his church. Kerry stayed around for about another month, and he decided he’d had enough, and he went back home. We kept going. Those were some dark times. Playing small clubs from Tuesday through Thursday to get to the good gigs on the weekends. It was a rough go for a lot of years, but we slowly made our way back. We were recording new music. Our music has been used in movies, and as basically the theme song for a television series that lasted 16 years, I think it was. The Supernatural series. We developed a whole new set of young fans who were fans of that TV show. We’ve had several factors that helped us out, the fact that the internet came along. I don’t know if that helped us as far as our royalty situation, but it kept us in the public eye and people were able to access our music and listen to the band.

Toddstar: Absolutely. In late 2022, you guys released a 3CD set, Another Fork In The Road, to commemorate 50 years and help set up the tour to get everybody back on the right page. As part of that package, you guys went back and rerecorded “Can I Tell You.” The thing I love about this is you guys modernized it without modernizing it.

Billy: Yeah, we stayed pretty true to the original recording but with modern tools. That song is probably the most important song in our whole repertoire. That includes 16 studio albums of material, in that it wasn’t a hit and didn’t get a lot of airplay, but it was on a demo tape that they sent to Don Kirshner. He heard that particular song and that’s the song that caught his ear that says, “I want to sign these guys.” He had never heard a violin played in a rock song like that and that’s what caught his ear. He ended up signing the band. If he hadn’t, who knows if the band would ever have been signed or even had a career. We really give that song a lot of credit for establishing Kansas as a progressive rock band and really giving a chance for the career to start driving.

Toddstar: The proverbial lightning in a bottle.

Billy: Yes, absolutely.

Toddstar: Speaking of lightning in a bottle, I wasn’t old enough to enjoy Kansas in the 70’s heyday. My first real exposure to Kansas that made me pay attention was “Play the Game.” You came in a little bit after that, and you guys have had some amazing hits and albums since then. What’s the one song or album that’s been part of your catalog with the band that you thought just didn’t get the shot that it deserved?

Billy: A couple of albums. We made an album with Bob Ezrin called In the Spirit of Things. We got caught up in a bunch of record company politics and changing of the A&R people and the top brass at the label. They ended up clearing the label of a lot of acts that they had on there and just withdrew support. That album that was produced by Bob Ezrin who also produced Alice Cooper and Pink Floyd, so he’s got a pretty good resume, and it just didn’t get the shot that I think it deserved. Another one is Freaks of Nature, an album we recorded down in Trinidad, which I thought had some great songs on it. Like I said, it was just probably a matter of the changing of radio itself and the flavor of the decade, which that’s when Nirvana had their first big breakout hit, which changed the face of music I think, all these bands from the Seattle, and the grunge sound. It put us back a way; we couldn’t get our music played and we couldn’t really get booked anymore. We had to struggle, like I said, for quite a few years there through some dark times to start building it back and getting it back together again.

Toddstar: That said, you guys have gelled well as a unit. To what do you attest the camaraderie and longevity you have now with longtime members and newer additions that you’ve had in the last few years allowing you to go out and do this day after day?

Billy: Well, we laugh a lot. We get along. There’s no animosity among the members at all. We’ve established the fact that we’re going to be together. It’s like a marriage up there and you need to make it work. You can’t be up on your high horse and make the other members resent or get mad at you by acting like a prima donna or whatever. It is just a matter of facing the facts that, “Look, if we’re going to do this, we need to get together. We can’t be backstabbing and things like that. And so, let’s have fun with it and appreciate it while we’ve still got it.”

Toddstar: You’re going to support this 50th anniversary with the Another Fork In The Road Tour. If you could cull through the catalog, Billy, and I have been told you guys are pulling out a few treats, what’s the song or two from the catalog that you would just love to play live?

Billy: Wow. Geez, I don’t know. There are 16 albums worth of material, and there’s a lot of stuff like “Windows,” and things like that, just songs that have never gotten a fair shake, even tracks that I’ve been involved with that I can’t think of right now. Like I said, the In the Spirit of Things album produced by Bob Ezrin was a fantastic album. It just because it didn’t get the push and didn’t get the support from the record company, it just died on the vine. I really can’t think of any songs. I’ll think of a dozen or more when we hang up.

Toddstar: I was going to say Ion the flip side of that coin, when you’re running through the set in your mind and you’re getting close, what song amps you up to where you can’t wait to just tear into it?

Billy: Well, we’ve worked it back into the set and we’ve done it many times through the years. We’ve featured it as a bonus track on one of our DVDs, I think the 35th anniversary DVD. There’s a little bonus thing where we’re jamming on “Down The Road,” and we’ve dusted that off and brought it back into the set again. I’m getting to sing that, because that’s a song that Robby sings and for the most part I’ve taken over all of Robby’s vocal parts in live settings. I’m looking forward to doing that again. I just love that song – the energy of it and it’s musically challenging and fun to play.

Toddstar: It’d be cool to see it live. I have the pleasure of being able to see this show when it hits Detroit on June 17th, so I’m amped about that. You’ve done stuff with your son’s band, and you’ve been at this game a long time. If you could go back and talk to a young Billy when he picked up a bass and decided this is what he was going to do, and I’m sure this is a conversation you’ve probably had with your son along the way, but what piece of advice would you give yourself way back when, knowing what you know now?

Billy: I would tell myself to make myself try to write and be more creative, instead of just trying to learn other people’s material. We were good at that; we were good at being copy bands and covering other people’s music. Knowing what I know about where actually the money comes from in the long run, it’s in writing songs, receiving royalties, and being able to establish yourself as a songwriter. That’s not easy to do. It’s something like anything that you have to keep that muscle and tone. You can’t just let it sit and wither for a while, otherwise you lose your sharpness. It’s something you have to do daily. That’s something I didn’t really do in the early part of my career, and it took a long time for me to finally start trying to do that. That moved the needle for me and eventually got me to Atlanta where I was able to hook up with Steve Walsh and eventually on with Kansas.

Toddstar: You had a different avenue into the band than a couple of the other guys that have come in either since you or have come and gone, that you were able to build that bridge and get in and you didn’t have to “prove yourself.” You had already done that.

Billy: Yeah, I didn’t have to audition for Kansas because Steve had come, and I auditioned for him. He had come out and seen my band that I had down in the Atlanta area, and we had one song, “Cold Hearted Woman” that ended up on the first Streets album that was a regional hit in the Atlanta area. He came out to this club, heard me play, and offered me an audition with Streets. He gave me a tape with three songs and said, “Learn these and show up again next Thursday.” I went down to his practice place; he already had the drummer and the guitar player and had gone through half a dozen bass players and hadn’t found one that could play bass and back him up as a vocalist. I think that was my stronghold. My ace in the hole is the fact that I was a decent bass player who could play the parts, but also, I had that lead singer quality voice, and my range was comparable to Steve’s. I can’t say it was as high as his, but it was damn close to it. I was able to sing backgrounds to him and at times even sing the higher vocal parts so that he didn’t have to replicate those for five gigs in a row. I was able to get him some relief in that category, so we were able to play more gigs in a row. You don’t think about when you’re 19 or 20 years old. In the studio, all you want to do is just hit those high notes as high as you can just to show off. You don’t think about having to replicate those live, especially when you don’t have a clue that you’re going to last for 40, 50 years. You start having to reproduce those notes and everybody wants to hear them, and you can’t do them anymore. That runs into problems with the fans sometimes.

Toddstar: Billy, I appreciate the time. I can’t wait to see the show. I wish you safe travels in the meantime, and we’ll see you guys on stage at the Fisher in Detroit on June 17th.

Billy: Thanks, Todd.







Category: Interviews

About the Author ()

ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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