Chart Week: February 5, 1977
Song: “Carry On Wayward Son” – Kansas
Chart Position: #36, 7th week on the chart, debut week on Top 40. Peaked at #11 for two weeks in April.
The world is a much smaller place today than when my generation was growing up. Thanks to cable/satellite TV, the Internet, and social media networks, trends spread to the hinterlands almost as soon as they pop up in the cultural centers of the world. Hell, the next dumb-but-invasive, week-long TikTok trend is as likely to come from an unknown person in the middle of nowhere as an influencer in New York or LA.
But when we were kids, things moved to the center much slower. Punk, Rap and Hip Hop, New Wave, and other new sounds got their American starts on the coasts and gradually trickled into the Midwest and South.
Because of this, bands from the flyover states had to battle preconceived notions held by not only the listening public, but also by record labels.
Take Kansas, for example. They were from Topeka. Their music fit squarely into the progressive, arena rock sound that was big in the mid/late 1970s. But because of where they were from, people struggled to believe they should be categorized with bands like Boston, Styx, and Journey.
As Casey related in this countdown, when people heard the name “Kansas,” they expected a “Bluegrass band that wore overalls and chewed on a piece of straw.”
As a native Kansan, this offends me. Bluegrass was Appalachian music, made by and for Hillbillys. Kansas is not Hillbilly territory; its flatlands are the home of dirt farming Hicks. These are important distinctions.
Kansas’ label wasn’t immune to these harmful stereotypes. Kirshner Records tried to push the band as an “All-American, Bicentennial band,” according to Casey. I’m not really sure what that meant. Maybe closer to the Beach Boys than Led Zeppelin? I’m not sure you can get more American than this song, though, which sounds like it should be played in a big, 100% steel car made in Michigan that gets about 10 miles per gallon with the windows cranked down and the 8-track player cranked up.
Anyway, Kansas overcame that awful prejudice and were one of the biggest bands in the world for a brief spell. While this was not their biggest hit – “Dust In The Wind” peaked at #6 – it is their most enduring. Twice in the 1990s “Carry On Wayward Son” ended a calendar year as the most-played song on US classic rock stations. I hear it pretty regularly on SiriusXM, and if my daughters are in the car with me, I get a lot of eye rolls when I turn the volume up and start playing drums or keyboards on the steering wheel.
I do that because this is a kick ass song. Everything about it is amazing.
It has a perfect blend of vocals. In each verse, Steve Walsh sounds like he’s singing a ballad. But on the chorus, when Robby Steinhardt joins him, they transform it into a howling rocker. Walsh absolutely soars on the big notes. He’s not quite Brad Delp, but he’d certainly Delp-adjacent. He could fucking sing, and he sings the absolute hell out of this song.
Opening with an a cappella chorus then going straight into a breakdown and guitar solo was brilliant, and very prog-rock. Including solos by two different guitarists plus an organ solo also screams 1970s. It doesn’t quite have the “movement” feel that, say, Boston’s “Foreplay/Longtime” has, but the distinct sections give the song a majesty that sets it aside from standard radio fare. Those parts keep pushing and pushing and pushing until the sudden wind down and closing riff. Every element makes you want to sing along while playing the air instrument of your choice.
The lyrics are pretty great, too. Guitarist Kerry Livgren wrote them as a note of encouragement to himself as he drifted in his search for a spiritual home. They are exactly how I would expect someone of his age, in that time, to speak about their journey. I always think of the people my parents hung out with in their grad school/post-graduate years when we lived in small college towns. While some of the lyrics seem overtly religious, they are never preachy nor pretentious. It never sounds like a Christian rock song – Livgren did not intend it to be – so even if that kind of thing normally grates on you, I can’t imagine this song would bother you. Above any spiritual references, it is a song about never letting obstacles keep you from your goals. Or Ad astra per aspera, as some might say.
Not all the songs that were big hits in the late 1970s arena rock era hold up well. This one does. 10/10
I’ll include two videos for the song. First, the official video, so you get the entire song in all its glory. And can check out some of the looks the band rocked. Second is their magnificent 1978 Canada Jam performance. There is A LOT going on in that video.
Livgren later became a born-again Christian. In some interviews he has said the song is more about his search than where he ended up. In others, he’s said the song is about his excitement over the success of the band, the fear that it wouldn’t last, and hope that he could enjoy the moment regardless of the future. That’s some cool shit. ↩