Like a lot of children of his generation, David Ragsdale, who performs Saturday at Horseshoe Casino's Bluesville with the '70s progressive rock band Kansas, grew up emulating The Beatles. The Georgia native wanted nothing more than to rock out with a guitar like his heroes John and George.
But his mother insisted he learn the violin instead, a wish he complied with until he turned 13 and put down the instrument, he thought, for good.
"I was a junior in high school when Kansas released the first album, Kansas," Ragsdale recalls of the moment in 1974 that led him to pick up the instrument again three years later. "I heard this violin rocking out in a rock band. That had an awful lot to do with me transitioning back to the violin. I was like, 'Wow, it can be done. It is a cool instrument.'"
More than three decades later, Ragsdale finds himself actually playing in the band that inspired him, not just on violin but also singing and serving as the band's unofficial emcee.
Ragsdale first joined Kansas in 1991 at a time when a reformed lineup featuring Dixie Dregs guitarist Steve Morse was actually performing without a violin player. After lobbying for the gig by recording his own violin parts on top of the violin-less 1986 Kansas album Power, Ragsdale quit his job playing for Louise Mandrell and toured for a solid six years with Kansas.
When Ragsdale tired of the road, founding violinist Robby Steinhardt rejoined the band in the late '90s. Then, in 2006 Steinhardt retired, and Ragsdale returned.
"It's the ultimate violin rock band," says Ragsdale, ranking the gig premier on a résumé that also includes stints playing with Smashing Pumpkins and Queensrche. "For a violinist, it just doesn't get any better because it's such a happy marriage between the two worlds of classical and rock. I mean, when Kansas rocks, they rock hard."
Since first forming in Topeka in 1970, Kansas — which currently includes original members Phil Ehart (drums), Steve Walsh (keyboards) and Rich Williams (guitar) along with longtime bassist Billy Greer — has racked up a long list of memorable rock hits, including "Carry On Wayward Son" and "Point Of No Return." But the band's current tour is dedicated to celebrating perhaps their best-known song, "Dust In the Wind."
"It's the most famous violin solo in any rock tune that has ever been written," Ragsdale states flatly, referring to Steinhardt's famous part, which he faithfully re-creates every night. "It's an enduring piece of music. It's well written, well crafted. Anything that well written is always fun to play."
To mark the 35th anniversary of the 1977 hit, the band has published a 32-page hardcover commemorative book detailing the song's history and its impact on fans' lives. The book is available on the band's website, kansasband.com, as well as at shows, with the proceeds going to Autism Speaks in honor of Ehart's son, who has the condition. The band is also holding a drawing for one fan to win an autographed custom replica of the Martin D-28 acoustic guitar originally used to record the song.
Showtime for Kansas is 8 p.m. Tickets are $27.50 and $45 and are available at the box office and through Ticketmaster. For more information, visit horseshoetunica.com.