I don't think we're in Kansas® anymore

Sept. 18, 2009

When we start talking about the Violin and Mainstream Rock and Roll in the same sentence, you have to admit, it’s kind of a rare occurrence. There’s only a few bands that have tried to incorporate the centuries old instrument into modern mainstream rock. Don’t get me wrong, I know there’s plenty of strings on lots of songs. Dylan’s “Desire” has got the fiddle on most tracks. The Who featured one on the song Babba O’Reilly. John Mellencamp has a full time violin player in the band. And when I went to see Springsteen last time, his band was touring with the fiddle player from the “Seeger Sessions” album.

But, in my mind, the primary band that used violin in mainstream rock, has got to be the band Kansas. I recall seeing them, and my ticket stub says the show was on June 14, 1992 – at a place called Sun Tan Lake, in Riverdale, N.J. It wasn’t the original line-up, (in fact, I don’t think it was the original violin player) and they shared the bill with Peter Frampton and Blue Oyster Cult. By the way, tickets were $25 bucks, but that was for 3 bands. Ahh, those were the days.

So now we get to fast-forward to 2009. A few months ago, I came home from one of my “used music buying excursions,” with a bunch of old records, including a few by Kansas. It’s great, because the records are so cheap to buy now, that even if the disc doesn’t play, it’s still great just to have the artwork on the cover. Nowadays, you just don’t get that kind of connection with the small CD jewel case.

So I’m listening to Monolith, the one with the strange futuristic Native American Indian/Spaceman theme on the cover, and it seems like the normal Kansas type rock songs. You know, lots of keyboards, drums, power chords everywhere, and maybe one or two cuts that kind of make you go “yeah, I think I remember that one…”

And then I put on “Song for America.” Now, you’ll have to work with me here, as I’ve never heard this album before. I put the needle down on the record and head over to the couch. And the first song comes on, and I’m like, “Hmmm, very acoustic. Did they do an acoustic album? And about half way through the song, I’m like, “this is really weird.”

And then the second song comes on. And it’s more of the same. It sounds like the first song, but this is like a laid back acoustic-funky singer songwriter trip going on. Definitely not the norm for Kansas.

The same thing happens on the third song. I think to myself, “What the heck is going on here?”

I physically now have to get off of the couch and find out what is going on.

OK, I’m now at my turntable (by the way, the turntable is right next to the couch), and I am now in the process of finding out what is going on. I look at the album cover, and it says “Kansas.”

I look at the record label, and it says “Kansas.” And then, I look at the number of tracks listed for side one, and compare it to how many I see on the actual record.

And it’s different.

Houston, we have a problem.

I turn the record over to side two, cue up the first song, and look at the album cover. 1975 era Kansas with power chords and synthesizer noise comes blaring out of the speakers. OK, side two sounds normal.

So, I’ve got a misprint! Not a label error, or a typo, this is much more serious. Someone, apparently in 1975, fell asleep at the record plant and mistakenly put someone else’s music on side one of Song for America.

I can’t believe this. It took me 35 years to finally get this album, and now I only have side two. I wonder, how many were printed like this, and most of all, who the heck is the artist on side one?

I turned to the internet to see if I could find some answers. I sent out two emails – one, to Kerry Livegren, who was the guitar player for Kansas, for something like 12 years. I asked him if he’s ever heard of/remembered anything like this happening, and if he knew who the other artist was. A few days later, he did reply, but the only thing he said was “Wow, that’s a real collector’s item.” No explanations, or referrals to anyone else. Weird.

I also sent an email to the guy listed as engineering the album (who now runs some studio in the Midwest), but I never heard back.

Feeling like I should go back to square one here, I carefully listened to the mystery songs again, and took some notes. Song 1 was something about “Ohoopy River Bottomlands…….” And on I went, taking notes on lyrics as best I could for that side of the record.

Finally, after a few misspellings and dead ends, I got a hit on the song. It turns out that what I had was Side One of an album by Larry Jon Wilson, called “New Beginnings.” The year? 1975. And the song is actually “Ohoopee River Bottomland,” and thankfully, there were some mp3 files online to listen to. The other 4 songs checked out as well.

I couldn’t find an email address for Mr. Wilson, but I did come across a fan website, so I left a message on that, asking him if he knew anything of the mishap at the record plant. It’s funny, because Wilson’s records are on the “Monument” label, and Kansas is on the Kirshner label. The only explanation I have is some smaller labels must have been printed by bigger companies, and this must be one of the examples of that partnership.

So it turns out that the records by Mr. Wilson are pretty rare. From what I’ve read on the Web, Wilson became a singer/songwriter in the 70s and gained a lot of respect from the alt-country performers, like Townes VanZant and Guy Clark. His songs (at least the ones I have) feature a full band, and it’s kind of a country/soul/singer-songwriter groove.

I find it great that a record plant mistake leads to a new artist discovery 35 years later.

So, you’re now wondering if Larry Wilson ever got back to me. Well, not yet, but someone else did. Roland Heiss, who lives out near Ellensburg, WA., emailed me because he saw my post on Larry’s fan-site. And he, too, was wondering if Larry replied. It was interesting, because Roland sent me his youtube video link, and there he was, playing a Towne song on his acoustic guitar.

Oh, and he collects records, too. He told me a story of buying a Nazareth record years back, and boy, was he mad when he listened to side one, and Molly Hatchet came blaring out of his speakers…

Cripes! Before we get too much more into this, we better get back to our original topic.

Which was…oh yeah, rock and roll and violin. It turns out that violinist Aaron Meyer will be in Hood River at the United Way Benefit on Sept. 17. Aaron is known for all kinds of music styles, including rock, but he told me in his interview that he’s playing a solo show, and, get this, he’ll be playing back-up tracks behind him and playing his violin on top of those. Kind of a one-man-band deal.

But, I just have one suggestion – make sure, whatever you do, don’t use Side One of Kansas’s Song For America…….

Aaron Meyer played at a United Way benefit in Hood River Sept. 17. Jim Drake talked to him beforehand about his music:

1. The benefit on Sept. 17 bills you as a "rock violinist," but your music is more far-reaching than that. What can we expect musically - full band? Solo?

I will be solo on Thursday, playing to tracks so you will hear the other band parts but they are not live. This is not my favorite way to play, but this is a fundraiser and we are trying to keep costs way down so it was not possible to bring any of my other band members for this event. But I am returning to Hood River on March 6 with a 3 piece band to perform at a concert for the Columbia Center for the Arts

2. You probably own both, but what do you prefer to play - acoustic instruments, or the new solid body types? If acoustic, how do you handle microphone/sound reinforcement?

I rarely use my electric violin live unless I am doing one of my school presentations. I almost always use my acoustic violin. I use a k and k sound pickup, which lives under my bridge and hangs out on the tail piece, so not much touches the violin except the transducers. This works the same way you would amplify an acoustic guitar. It is really difficult to amplify an acoustic violin and keep the sound as close the true acoustic sound...violins are temperamental and a pain...however the k and k sound pick up works great in my opinion and I like the sound it produces when amplified. I am so used to the sound of the violin coming out of the hollow sound chamber and into my ear that it is really hard for me to get used to a solid body instrument where I can't hear anything come out.

3. Your webpage says you're a big Grateful Dead fan. If I had to pick a favorite album, I'd probably have to go with "Europe 72." And your favorite would be...?

I don't listen to the Dead’s studio albums, but I have tons of live recordings, and I have many favorites. I love the music from the late 80's particularly 1989-90 and also 1977.

4. How did you get booked for the gig on the 17th....do you get to visit the Gorge with your busy schedule?

I had a violin student and her uncle is Gordon Sato who lives in Hood River. Gordon is on the committee for the United Way event. Madeline brought her uncle to one of my concerts and then we went to several other concerts and we became friends. He asked if I would do this event and I gladly accepted. One of the best parts about teaching is getting to know the family of my students.

5. What advice would you give someone who wanted to start playing the violin, but didn't have the luck to start at a very early age?

Find a good teacher that inspires you and that teach you how to practice carefully, find fun music to play that you enjoy, do the hard work, practice well, and have fun with the violin. 6. I've always said that the difference between violin and fiddle is in the style of music. What do you think? Yes...I believe it’s the same instruments, just a different style...like jazz to rock

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