How Kansas Triumphed Over Doubt to Deliver ‘Dust in the Wind’
When Kansas’ then-guitarist Kerry Livgren presented the rough version of “Dust in the Wind” to his bandmates, he was convinced they wouldn’t want to record it.
The group was ready to take additional risks, however, following the surprise success of “Carry On Wayward Son” in 1976. That’s how they came to track “Dust in the Wind” for 1977’s Point of Know Return LP. They released it as a single in January 1978, then saw it become their only Top 10 hit.
“When Kerry played ‘Dust In The Wind’ for us. We had never really done an entire acoustic song,” drummer Phil Ehart told UCR’s Matt Wardlaw. “I think we had some acoustic interludes and stuff in some of our music. He prefaced it with, ‘You guys probably won’t like this, because this is an acoustic song.’”
Guitarist Richard Williams said “Kerry had developed a chord pattern for a fingerpicking exercise. … He just came up with a little chord pattern and was practicing. His wife would come by and say, ‘That’s really nice – you ought to maybe write a song with that.’ He’s like, ‘No, no, we don’t do things like this. The guys wouldn’t really like it.’ But eventually he did. He wrote a song and he brought it to rehearsal as we were working up the album. He said, ‘I’ve got one more song. We probably wouldn’t do it, but anyway, here it is.’”
“Carry on Wayward Son” had been similarly added to 1976's Leftoverture at a late stage, only to become the LP’s standout piece. “‘Dust’ came in pretty late in the process also,” Williams said. “[Livgren] played it and he had a reel-to-reel, which he turned on and he was kind of mumbling the lyrics. He and Steve [Walsh] were looking at the lyrics sheet. Even in that raw bare bones first presentation, we heard it right away.”
Ehart said “he played it and of course, the rest is history. But yeah, just sitting there and him playing it was something I don’t think any of us will ever forget. Because we were the first ones to hear it and it just blew us away. You know, it was so impressive, even in its embryonic stages. It was easy to hear that this was going to be something special.”
Completing the track wasn’t an easy process for Williams, who wasn’t used to playing in the picked style required. The issue was made worse by the fact Kansas were working in an alternative studio after the one they’d started in presented unsurmountable technical issues.
Watch Kansas’ Video for ‘Dust in the Wind’
“We were using older machines,” Williams recalled. “So you couldn’t punch in anything. I had to play it from beginning to end. There wasn’t any spot in which they could just drop me in as an edit. It was a long process, because there’s four guitars playing that.”
Williams said he “headed to the studio the next morning and everybody is hanging their heads and I’m going, ‘Oh no.’ Some of the older machines could eat tape on occasion. I thought, ‘Oh no, they accidentally hit record or something and we lost part of it.’ They said, ‘No, no, just listen to it.’ I sat in a chair and they turned it on and there it was in all of its glory. It sounded great – except in the background, you could hear … four tracks of the fingerpicking hitting the strings.”
The effect, he said, was like “Clydesdales were dancing in the background.” They had no option but to do it over. “I had to do it without finger picks … It was another long day of recording and by then, my fingers were bloody, but we got it done.” In the end, Williams said “my recollection mostly is of the painful process of spending two days of recording it. I’d had enough of it by then!”
Despite those memories, Williams reported that the “Nashville tuning” suggested to him to make the recording easier had been a revelation. It's “an engineer’s trick that we’d never heard before,” he reported. “So I said, ‘Sure, let’s give it a try,’ and I’ve done it ever since on everything we’ve ever recorded – I’ll add a high-strung guitar to it.”
“Dust in the Wind” reached No. 6 in the U.S. and was the 39th best-selling single of the year, and it’s surpassed triple-platinum sales since then. Ehart admitted Kansas had been under additional pressure “to surpass” the success of Leftoverture, but noted: “With the help of the first single – being ‘Point of Know Return’ – going up the charts, and then ‘Dust in the Wind’ just exploding across the world, yeah, we were definitely successful in doing that. Having that back to back, you couldn’t ask for any more. We were very, very fortunate.”
Their song ended up traveling to some surprising places along the way. “You know, we’ve had a lot of covers over the years … and it’s always flattering,” Ehart added. “You know, I even got a rap version of ‘Dust in the Wind.’ … I listened to it and I thought, ‘Someone put in a lot of work to do that.’ We just always appreciate people thinking our music is worth covering. It’s very flattering and it’s pretty cool.”