We missed West Virginia’s 154th birthday this past Saturday, June 20. We were a very bad feature magazine supposedly devoted to the life & times of the Mountain State. West Virginia Day marks when a bunch of Unionist counties in northwestern Virginia succeeded in joining the Union in 1863, as the Civil War began to heat up and the country began to melt down.
The rest is—literally—history.
West Virginia’s birth was notable on several accounts, especially right now, with the Confederacy and the legacy of all those in-your-face statues so much in the news. As West Virginia’s Wikipedia page notes:
It was the only state to form by separating from a Confederate state, the first to separate from any state since Maine separated from Massachusetts, and was one of two states (along with Nevada) admitted to the Union during the American Civil War. While a portion of its residents held slaves, most of the residents were yeoman farmers, and the delegates provided for gradual abolition of slavery in the new state Constitution.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Virginia
We come not to pop quiz you, however, but to celebrate the grand tradition of songwriting about West Virginia, which is nearly as old as the state itself. This post marks the start of a regular WestVirginiaVille series featuring original songs about the state, written by contemporary singer-songwriters.
As a weekend warrior musician myself, I routinely joke at gigs that if you’re a songwriter in West Virginia who has not written a song about the state after living here for 10 years, it counts as a misdemeanor offense by state and cultural authorities. And after 20 years? A felony—with your poetic license suspended until you do.
I am happy to kick off “Songs of West Virginia” with one of the state’s most beloved singer-songwriters, Ron Sowell and a wonderful song he co-wrote with Al Smith, called “I Know I’m Home.”
Ron is a superb songwriter and one of the most amiable persons you could ever hope to have at a microphone. As leader of the “Mountain Stage” band, he has performed with many of the world’s greatest singers and songwriters. He has also mentored, inspired and encouraged generations of singer-songwriters (myself included), while also showing how its done up on stage.
Check out his website, ronsowell.com, his “Little Movies” CD, and—if you have kids—”Opposite Day.” That recording should be sent home with parents after birthing newborns, to keep the kids—and parents—entertained as they grow up with fun music that’s also meaningful.
What follows is a version of “I Know I’m Home,” from the New Song Academy in Shepherdstown WV in 2007, and a Q-and-A on what got Ron to the state. And what keeps him here.
What follows after that is the mark of an excellent song—a version by a fellow musician who loves a songwriter’s tune so much he is compelled to cover it. In this case, a slide-guitar-animated version of “I Know I’m Home” that Don Steck shared on his Facebook timeline on West Virginia Day.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: You’re not from West Virginia. When was the first time the state entered your consciousness and what did you think of it before you moved here?
RON SOWELL: I remember studying the different states and their capitals in the 5th grade in elementary school in Roswell, New Mexico. (Yes, I did know it was a separate state and that it’s capital was Charleston!) I thought West Virginia sounded mysterious and somehow I felt an instant affinity to the place.
WVVILLE: Why did you move here? What was the motivation and hope?
RON SOWELL: I moved here quite by accident. I was touring the country playing college coffee houses. I had a gig at Wheeling Jesuit University and decided to visit my friend, Bob Webb, who had moved to a farm house in Putnam County. I fell in love with the land and the people. I decided to stay for the summer. That was 1974.
WVVILLE: Once you got here, did you ever think about leaving to find your fortunes elsewhere?
RON SOWELL: As much as I loved West Virginia, I never thought I could make a living playing original music here—and that I would have to move to a major music center. But then I found myself in a band called the Putnam County Pickers. Suddenly, we had more work than we could handle. I never seriously thought about leaving after that.
WVVILLE: What was the impetus to writing “I Know I’m Home”? Was there an occasion where the idea for the song came to you?
RON SOWELL: My friend Al Smith and I got together to write a song for West Virginia Day. It was originally supposed to be a humorous song, but what came out was a love song for West Virginia. The Fabulous Twister Sisters (Julie Adams and Deni Bonet) debuted it on a special West Virginia Day broadcast of “Mountain Stage.”
WVVILLE: What is it that has kept you here?
RON SOWELL: The land, the people, the community, have kept me anchored here. I have been a part of two successful original bands—the Pickers and Stark Raven. My daughter, Mira, was born and raised here. And I have been fortunate to have been a part of the growth and evolution of “Mountain Stage.” Music, true friends, community, natural beauty—why would I ever leave ?
WVVILLE: (Ask yourself a question—and answer it).
RON SOWELL: What surprises you most about your experience of living in WV ?
RON SOWELL: That I am so totally comfortable in a climate and culture that is so different than the one I grew up in. As my friend Larry Groce says: “I wasn’t born in WV, but I got here as quick as I could.”
Don Steck’s Cover of “I Know I’m Home”
Don Steck came to West Virginia from Washington DC, in 1978, as a mine inspector for the Office of Surface Mining, working with mine safety and environmental consultant Jack Spadaro. He used to play “I Know I’m Home” with a band called the Red Star Rockets in the ’80s and ’90s. The band’s bass player was Al Smith, who co-wrote the tune. “I sang it with the band all those years and performed it at the Sternwheel Regatta a number of times, opening for The Pointer Sisters, the Atlanta Rhythm Section and Delbert McClinton. I am now retired and living in Lewisburg and continuing to write and play music with several different combinations of musicians.” For more on Don, see this Sandy Wells profile on his “environmental cop” days.
“I KNOW I’M HOME”
By Ron Sowell and Al Smith
DOWN SOUTH THEY CALL US NORTHERN—EVER SINCE THE CIVIL WAR
UP NORTH THEY CALL US SOUTHERN—CAUSE OF THE WAY WE TALK—
THAT’S FOR SURE
OUT WEST THEY CALL US YANKEES—THOUGH THEY DON’T MEAN TO OFFEND YA’
EAST COAST PEOPLE AREN’T TOO SURE—
THEY THINK WE’RE STILL PART OF VIRGINIA
NOBODY MAKES ME FEEL LIKE YOU DO
NOBODY KNOWS THE THINGS WE’VE BEEN THROUGH
NOBODY TAKES ME TO THE PLACES
THAT YOU TAKE ME TO
WHEN I’M IN WEST VIRGINIA I KNOW I’M HOME
I CAME HERE YEARS AGO, FOR REASONS I CAN’T REMEMBER
WHEN I SAW YOU FOR THE FIRST TIME YOU MADE ME SMILE
NOW I’VE BEEN WITH YOU FROM JANUARY THROUGH DECEMBER
I’VE SEEN YOU THROUGH YOUR CHANGES
THINK I’LL STAY WITH YOU A-WHILE
I KNOW THERE ARE THOSE WHO’VE TAKEN WHAT THEY WANTED
WHEN YOU NEEDED THEM THEY JUST LEFT YOU HIGH AND DRY
BUT I COULD NEVER HURT YOU—DECEIVE YOU OR DESERT YOU
AFTER ALL WE’VE BEEN THROUGH—I COULD NEVER MAKE YOU CRY
WHEN I’M IN WEST VIRGINIA I KNOW I’M HOME.
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