Kansas violinist bridges gap between rock, classical

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Kansas joins the Columbus Symphony Orchestra for Picnic with the Pops Saturday, July 6. Tickets at the gate are $25/$8. Visit columbussymphony.com.
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David Ragsdale loves doing orchestra shows with his band, Kansas. And not just because he's the band's violin player -- he's the violin player.

"Look how much cooler my violin looks than the others," he joked during a phone interview with The Beat. To say nothing of being the one who's able to plug the electric violin into an amplifier and crank up the volume.

But Ragsdale won't flaunt it to any of the players in the orchestras, as he was once among them, having spent four years as a violinist with the Tulsa Philharmonic.

"I'm bilingual," he said -- meaning he speaks the musical language of both rock 'n' roll and classical musicians.

Ragsdale said playing with a symphony orchestra is a special thing.

"There aren't that many things that give us goosebumps anymore, but it happens when you're playing with a full orchestra."

Beyond the music featuring the violin, Kansas songs make for a natural partnership with orchestras.

"You look at the construction of the songs, not just because there are violin parts but all the parts and the layers, they're classically influenced. In these arrangements (by conductor and music director Larry Baird), there's really something for the orchestra to play."

Being "bilingual," being persistent and there not being anyone playing violin parts at a certain point in Kansas' 40-year history got Ragsdale his job with the band.

"In the mid-80s, the band had broken up and was getting back together with guitarist Steve Morse, who'd been in the Dixie Dregs. And they were a band that featured a violinist, like Kansas had been. But their record, Power, didn't have a violinist. So you had these two violin bands getting together but with no violin."

Ragsdale said a friend convinced him to record himself playing along with the songs and send them to the band.

"I could hear parts for the violin that weren't there, so I recorded them and sent them along. I petitioned pretty heavily for the band, and four years later, they hired me."

During his two stints with Kansas -- from 1991-97 and 2006-present -- Ragsdale has played both violin and guitar, an instrument he picked up in his teens before he discovered he could be a violin player and still play in a rock band. The experience contributed to his being able to speak both musical languages, and also provide added benefit to the band.

In this, the band's 40th anniversary year, Kansas is particularly busy. Later this summer, the band will play a special concert featuring three founding members no longer with the band: Kerry Livgren, Dave Hope and Robby Steinhardt. The concert will be half with a full orchestra, half a band-only set.

"We've been around long enough that fans are bringing back their kids, and in some cases fans who were bringing their kids back then are coming with their grandchildren, so we're getting three generations. It's pretty cool.

"That's what can happen when the music is that good."

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