Kansas’ Phil Ehart on the Band’s 50 Years: ‘Not Ready to Hang It Up Yet’
Mention the American progressive rock band Kansas and such major hits as “Carry on Wayward Son,” “Point of Know Return” and “Dust in the Wind” immediately come to mind. But arguably their most important song is perhaps obscure to casual listeners: the energetic and explosive “Can I Tell You,” which first appeared on the band’s 1974 self-titled debut album.
“That was the song that got us our recording contract [with Kirshner Records],” Kansas drummer Phil Ehart tells UCR. “Don Kirshner heard that song on our demo tape and said, ‘That's why I want to sign you to a recording contract.’”
Decades later, Kansas — whose present lineup consists of founding members Ehart and guitarist Richard Williams, plus bassist Billy Greer, violinist David Ragsdale, singer Ronnie Platt and keyboardist Tom Brislin — has recorded a new version of “Can I Tell You.” It appears on their latest release, Another Fork in the Road, a three-CD career compilation that came out on Dec. 16 and celebrates the 50th anniversary of the band's formation. “That was something that me and Rich kind of talked about,” Ehart says about revisiting the song.
“I said, ‘It would be cool to re-record something that we recorded 50 years ago, but let's re-record it with today's band.’ We were like 19 when we were recording that track. And the thing just hauls. I mean, it's really smoking. We thought, 'Well, we hope the drummer can keep up with it.’ Well, let's see, that’d be me. It was a real accomplishment to go in there all these years later and play at the same tempo. We're very, very pleased with it.”
The new version of “Can I Tell You” opens Another Fork in the Road, which Ehart and Williams helped curate. Containing music from their 1974 debut through their most recent album, 2020’s The Absence of Presence, the anthology was an idea from the band's current record label Inside Out. It not only contains hits and fan favorites, but deep cuts from later albums such as Vinyl Confessions (1982), Drastic Measures (1983), Freaks of Nature (1995), Always Never the Same (1998) and Somewhere to Elsewhere (2000).
Listen to Kansas' 'Can I Tell You (2022 Version)'
“I said, ‘Look, we want you guys to do this,'” Ehart recalls telling Inside Out. “And they were kind of put back a little bit as far as, 'What now?' ‘Richard and I want you guys to choose the songs. You're fans. You guys put on there what you like.’ And so they did. Richard and I were blown away by the job they did. They got all those songs and then they had to license them. So there was a lot of work involved. And then they got involved in the cover. We’re very proud of it and extremely, extremely thankful to them for doing something like this.”
Fittingly, the new anthology is dedicated to the band's original violinist and co-lead singer Robby Steinhardt, who died last year at the age of 71. “When Robby passed, it was rough,” Ehart says. “He'll always have a special meaning to all of us. And we were very proud to dedicate the album to him. We thought it was the right thing to do.”
Formed in 1973, Kansas originally featured Ehart, Williams, Steinhardt, singer/keyboardist Steve Walsh, guitarist Kerry Livgren and bassist Dave Hope. Ehart still fondly remembers when the band from Topeka, Kan., made its debut album for Kirshner Records at New York City's Record Plant in 1973. “Don Kirshner got us on his program [Don Kirshner's Rock Concert]. We got out on the road with Queen and were up and going," he recalls. "We went to New York and we didn't even have a road manager. It was just the guys in the band. The next day we were at the recording studio. We were in there with Aerosmith, and Yoko Ono and John Lennon were recording in there. Here we are, just bumpkins from Kansas. It was surreal. We all survived and came home and hit the road for a long time. And then we did another long run with Queen also. So we were very fortunate to get with great bands and get out there.”
It was Kansas' third album, 1976's Leftoverture, that broke the band into the mainstream, thanks to the success of hit single “Carry on Wayward Son.” Its follow-up, 1977's Point of Know Return, featured another enduring Kansas classic in the iconic ballad “Dust in the Wind.” (Both “Carry on Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind” are featured on Another Fork in the Road as live versions). They and other classics like “Song for America,” “Icarus - Borne on Wings of Steel” and “Play the Game Tonight” remain concert staples and will likely appear on the band's 50th-anniversary tour next year.
“Rich and I are working on the set list right now,” says Ehart, “trying to do something that's not the same old, same old. But in the same sense, you got to have the same old, same old. You got to have 'Dust in the Wind,' 'Point of Know Return,' 'The Wall.' But there will be a lot of older tracks in there. There'll be a lot of newer ones that we haven't played as much. So it's not going to be that far from Another Fork in the Road. It's going to kind of follow that guideline as to what we play and what we have in our set list. There's a lot of material there, and we're going to mine all of it.”
Listen to Kansas' 'Carry on Wayward Son'
Kansas has survived major personnel changes over the decades, with Ehart and Williams keeping the group's legacy alive. To Ehart, it's always been about the music rather than one or two particular members. “It's been 30 and 40 years since some original members have even been in the band," he says. "Billy Greer has been in the band longer than the original members that aren't with us anymore. We always just concentrated on making it about the music. It was never ‘Kansas featuring this guy or this guy.’ No, it's just Kansas. We're still Kansas. So if you want to come and hear Kansas, we're your huckleberry. We're that band.”
Ehart says the current state of the group — with longtime members Greer and Ragsdale and newer guys Platt and Brislin — is great, as evidenced by the positive reception to their last two albums, 2016's The Prelude Implicit and The Absence of Presence. “Hopefully, we'll get to do another [new album]” the drummer says. “That's what's so great about Inside Out, is they're there for us. So the opportunity is there. It's just that right now, the band is very popular on the road. When you go on to make an album, that takes you off the road. And so it's what we have to be careful [about] when we come off the road, that we've got everything organized and all the material is written. So we're working as a touring band right now [and] hoping to have another new album when it's ready to go.”
Looking back at 50 years of Kansas, whose music still gets played on the radio and streaming platforms as well as being featured in film and TV, Ehart expresses gratitude. But, he adds, “We're not ready to hang it up yet. We want to keep the band going. And we have great musicians in the band, all good guys. We have a great time out there and it's fun.”