16 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Musicians From Kansas

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Being in the middle of the country, Kansas is not the first state you may think of when the words “famous musician” come to mind.

But with a rich history of its own, Kansas has not only produced some of the most famous musicians in America but also played a part in the development of the most popular genres, such as jazz. 

In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at 16 of the greatest and most famous musicians from Kansas to learn a bit more about them. Let’s read on!

Related: Read about the most influential musicians from the US here.

1. Charlie Parker

First on our list is Charlie Parker, arguably the most famous jazz alto saxophone player in the world. However, before he was the legend known as “Bird,” he was a kid in the Kansas City music scene cutting his chops.

With bebop jazz standards such as “Ornithology” and “Scrapple from the Apple” under his belt, Parker’s original sound changed jazz for generations to come.

Parker’s career was marked by struggles with drug abuse and mental health issues. He died at the age of 34, but his impact on music will never be forgotten.

2. Joe Walsh

Originally from Wichita, Joe Walsh played oboe at a young age before finding bass and guitar in college to form The James Gang.

However, it was his solo debut, titled The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get, that led him to mainstream success with hits like “Rocky Mountain Way.” This was before he joined the rock band Eagles on “Hotel California.”

With the Eagles, Walsh played the lead and rhythm guitars, backing and lead vocals, and keyboards. In 1974, he embarked on a solo career. Since then, he has continued making music and occasionally reunited with the Eagles.

3. Stan Kenton

Another Wichita native, jazz pianist, band leader, and composer Stan Kenton dared to have a sound all his own in jazz. Before he carved a name for himself with hits like “Artistry in Rhythm,” he played with names such as Vido Musso and Gus Arnheim.

But it was when he started his orchestra (during a time when big band was not as popular) that he found his greatest success. Tunes such as “Elegy for Alto” helped him on the road to fame.

Before he died in 1979, Kenton had formed several experimental bands and mentored many young players.

4. Janelle Monáe

Fusing funk, soul, R&B, and hip-hop, Janelle Monáe has become one of the most unique artists of our time. Growing up in Kansas City, Monáe relocated to New York to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy before dashing to Atlanta.

There, she connected with experimental artists and refined her sound on songs such as “Tightrope.”

Monáe also acts and has been in successful films such as Moonlight and Hidden Figures. She continues to record and act simultaneously. With 10 Grammy nominations to her name, she has been recognized for her musical talent and creative contributions.

5. Martina McBride

The 1990s had no shortage of legendary country musicians to pick from, and of that elite included Martina McBride from Sharon, Kansas. 

Growing up singing in a family band before she was 10, McBride was exposed to country music at a young age.

With the success of her third album, Wild Angels, McBride launched to stardom, following it with hits such as “I Love You” and “Love’s the Only House.”

Since then, McBride has stayed in the country spotlight by continuously making records, hosting a successful cooking show on television, and hosting a podcast.

6. Melissa Etheridge

From learning guitar from a young age in Leavenworth, Kansas, to attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Melissa Etheridge was a fundamentalist of rock music from an early age.

She released several albums that garnered the attention of rock legends such as Rod Stewart but found mainstream success with hits such as “Bring Me Some Water,” “Similar Features,” and “No Souvenirs.”

Since taking off, Etheridge has won an Oscar and 2 Grammys, written an autobiography, beat breast cancer, and sold over 25 million records. Today, she continues making and releasing records.

Related: For more on Melissa, read our famous lesbian singers list here.

7. Kendall Schmidt

Singer and songwriter Kendall Schmidt discovered music at an early age in Wichita, as well as acting. He would put the two arts together when he joined Big Time Rush, a television series and real-life band.

The group went on to release several hits such as “Boyfriend” and “Til I Forget About You.” They also put out a major motion picture called Big Time Movie.

Since his success in the band, Schmidt has released music with side projects. He continues to sing, act, and produce music, demonstrating his capability as a multifaceted entertainer.

8. Andy McKee

​​At the young age of 13, Andy McKee began playing guitar in Topeka, Kansas. His unique approach to playing guitar — the fingerstyle guitar playing — has captivated audiences worldwide.

Virtually self-taught, McKee achieved success, attributed to his online videos, particularly his song “Drifting” from his debut album, Nocturne, which showcased his exceptional talent and innovative techniques. He placed in many national guitar competitions along the way as well.

Beyond his solo work, McKee has collaborated with celebrated artists like Josh Groban. Currently, his discography includes six studio albums, three extended plays, and a live album.

9. Hattie McDaniel

Growing up in her parent’s Baptist tent show in Wichita, Hattie McDaniel began singing at an early age. She went on to join a group called Melody Hounds, led by someone known as “Professor” George Morrison.

Eventually, Hattie decided to move to Los Angeles. There, she got a chance to be on a radio show named The Optimistic Do-Nuts. From there, McDaniel was cast in nearly 70 films, such as Gone with the Wind.

In addition to acting, McDaniel made several recordings during the 1920s. Some of her songs include “I Wish I Had Somebody,” “I Thought I’d Do It,” and “That New Love Maker of Mine.”

10. Joyce DiDonato

Originally from Prairie Village, female opera singer Joyce DiDonato studied classical music at Wichita State with the intention of teaching but quickly fell into the world of opera.

She performed at San Francisco, Houston, and Santa Fe operas before recording albums of Handel’s music. In 2005, DiDonato debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where she performed Mozart’s works, earning high praise from critics and audiences alike.

Since finding success in the arts, she has used her voice for activism, making a positive impact beyond the stage. Her contributions to the arts have been recognized with multiple awards, including Grammy Awards and an Olivier Award.

11. Diane Bish

Before her work as an organist, composer, and conductor, Diane Bish hailed from Wichita where she played piano at 6 years old. She studied organ at Ashbury College before playing many church jobs and teaching.

Bish was featured on many television programs early in her career, starting with the Coral Ridge Hour. She began recording her music around that time too.

After this, in 1982, Bish began hosting The Joy of Music. Since then, she has performed all over the world, authored books, and composed her works.

12. Chris Mann

Hailing from Wichita, Chris Mann studied classical music at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music before moving to Europe to pursue a professional singing career in Italian opera.

After relocating to Los Angeles, Mann worked as a session musician for soundtracks but found a wider audience in 2012 when he released his debut effort, Roads. A success, the album reached #1 on Billboard‘s Heatseekers chart.

Since then, he has hosted Christmas specials on PBS, released a follow-up to Roads titled Constellation, and returned to the stage with The Phantom of the Opera.

13. Logan Mize

From an early age in Wichita, Logan Mize found music when he learned piano and began singing in high school. He had come from a musical family, and by the time he quit college to move to Nashville, he had put together his first band.

His second album, Nobody in Nashville, helped him score big. He followed his success with hits like “Can’t Get Away from a Good Time” and “Better Off Gone.”

Mize has also acted in television, appearing in Hart of Dixie as himself, and collaborated with country legends. Mize still records and releases music today.

14. Danny Carey

Our next Kansas native, Danny Carey, began drumming at 10 in Lawrence. Soon after, he joined his high school jazz band. He studied percussion at the University of Missouri, where he developed an interest in geometric patterns and the occult.

He relocated to Los Angeles, where he session drummed for Carole King and recorded solo music. He eventually met his Tool bandmates there. They released their debut, titled Undertow, in 1993 and became rock legends shortly thereafter.

Carey still drums with Tool today and continues to work as a drummer in his many side projects too.

15. Kerry Livgren

Before founding the supergroup Kansas, Kerry Livgren lived in Topeka and was a fan of romantic classical music, which leaned to his future recording style.

When Kansas released their debut album, Leftoverture, they found great success with hits such as “Carry on Wayward Son.” He followed it up with “Dust in the Wind,” making Kansas one of the biggest bands of the 1970s.

Livgren recorded solo and also formed AD (a new group with several Kansas members). Since then, he has done farming full-time yet still records and performs with Kansas from time to time.

16. Katrina Leskanich

Closing our list is Katrina Leskanich, who was born into a military family in Topeka, Kansas. In high school, she took to music and started Katrina and The Waves.

They debuted in 1982 with “Nightmare” from the album The Bible of Bop; but it wasn’t until their next effort, “Walking on Sunshine,” did they hit it big internationally. The band faded in popularity but reemerged in 1997 when they won the Eurovision Song Contest.

Though the band has disassembled, “Walking on Sunshine” continues to stay in pop culture to this day. Leskanich continues writing, singing, and recording solo work to this day.

Summing Up Our List Of Great Musicians From Kansas

As you can see, the state of Kansas has produced some of the highest talents in the last 100 years. From the early days of tent shows to the grand stages of opera houses around the globe, these musicians have traversed a wide spectrum of genres.

Looking forward, the legacy of these trailblazers sets a high bar for the next generation of Kansas musicians. With such a strong foundation, we can only anticipate more groundbreaking contributions to the music world.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.