Rock violinist David Ragsdale's journey to Kansas

Brien Murphy

David Ragsdale’s music career is a lesson in persistence.

A member of the rock band Kansas, Ragsdale may have been a reluctant violinist when he was a boy (more on that in a minute), but when he got serious about the instrument, he made it his mission to be a rock violinist.

While a few rock bands have permanent violinists, Ragsdale set his sights on Kansas, whose many hits include the strings-inflected “Dust in the Wind” and “Song For America.”

So after performing with the Tulsa Philharmonic, Ragsdale went to Nashville and Los Angeles, looking for a break. He said he’d go to open-mic nights and pretend to shop for amplifiers in music stores, plugging in his violin and playing to get noticed.

He also recorded himself playing along with Kansas songs and sent the recordings to founding drummer Phil Ehart (who continues to perform with Steve Walsh and Richard Williams, who both joined the band in 1972).

“He said, ‘I couldn’t hire you,’ but I continued to chase them around for four years,” Ragsdale said. “And if I did anything decent in the studio, I’d make sure he got a copy of it.”

In 1991, Kansas went into the recording studio, and Ragsdale was invited to record violin parts. Soon, he was invited to join the band.

“What’s that … quote about success being part inspiration and about 90 percent perspiration?” Ragsdale said.

Diversion from the path

Performing violin with the progressive rock band is a long way from Ragsdale’s initial reaction to being handed a pint-sized version of the instrument when he was quite young.

“I did not want to be a violinist,” Ragsdale said. “That was my mom’s idea.”

It didn’t help that Ragsdale, like a lot of kids in the 1960s, fell in love with the Beatles’ music after seeing them on Ed Sullivan’s television variety show.

“There was no violinist,” Ragsdale said. “I went nuts.”

When he was about 13 or 14 years old, he took up guitar. “And I got pretty good at it. But when I was 18 or 19, I was looking around, and there were a lot of really good guitar players out there that I’d have to compete against,” he said.

“I thought, ‘Maybe violin wasn’t a bad idea.’”

Further inspiration came from a friend who got a chance to play with an orchestra.

“That registered with me. I understood classical violin and the concerto, but up until that very moment, I had never understood the goal,” Ragsdale said. “It was never fun. You play all these children’s pieces and nothing is cool and you turn on the radio and hear the Beatles and there is no violin in there. Then I see this guy I’ve known for years and years and he’s playing a Mendelssohn concerto with the local symphony, and that clicked. I understood what I could have done had I stuck with it.”

Ragsdale studied music at the University of Tulsa before launching his professional career. His experience playing rock music on guitar helped him make the transition to rock music violinist.

Learning experience

But he says there is still plenty to learn on his instrument. Despite a stint backing country musician Louise Mandrell, Ragsdale says he doesn’t consider himself a fiddler — and he’d like to be one. He’d also like to improve his jazz music skills.

“Every style of music has its own vocabulary,” Ragsdale said. “If you come to rock ‘n’ roll speaking a country music vocabulary, it is not going to translate. Especially if you are speaking a classical vocabulary. The stylistic techniques — there is a certain way you play Mozart that if you try to incorporate that into a rap tune, it’s not going to work.”

On the current tour, Ragsdale is, of course, playing Kansas’ greatest hits, most of them from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Some of the songs are more than 30 years old, but Ragsdale says playing them is always fun.

“They are unique and well-crafted — extremely well-crafted. Then you get into the more complex stuff, ‘Song for America,’ ‘The Wall,’ stuff that’s difficult and incredibly well crafted and fun to play,” he said.

“ … You can choose to get sick of everything or you can choose to say, ‘I’ve never played these songs ever.’ It’s an attitude. You either choose to have a lot of fun and play the parts as if you’ve never played them in front of people, or you can choose, ‘Here we go again.’

“It’s as fun as you make it.”


See more from Brien Murphy’s interview with Kansas violinist David Ragsdale and hear Ragsdale play at on our Off the Clock blog.

Meet Kings X

The hard-rock band experienced some commercial success in the early and mid-1990s, and continues to record while straddling secular and Christian rock audiences.

Kings X formed in the late 1980s, and earned airplay on rock music radio include “It’s Love” (1990), “Black Flag” (1992) and “Dogman” (1994).

The band’s albums “Ear Candy” and “Faith Hope Love By Kings X” also placed on the Billboard magazine contemporary Christian albums chart.

Kansas songs you may know:

“Carry On Wayward Son”

“Dust in the Wind”

“Point of Know Return”

“Hold On”

“Play the Game Tonight”

“Fight Fire With Fire”

“All I Wanted”