BE THE CHANGE: The Tale of A Song and Its Two Songwriters

Ron Sowell and Jon Wikstrom om stage.

The Tale of a Song and Its Two Songwriters

The video you see above of the wonderful new song, “Be the Change,” is the second music video collaboration between and the dynamic duo of Ron Sowell and his longtime songwriting partner, fellow musician and friend, Jon Wikstrom. Our video production crew, led by WestVirginiaVille Minister of Video Bobby Lee Messer and the editor of this magazine, Douglas John Imbrogno, teamed up with them in September 2020, on a music video of their equally fine tune “Lay Down That Burden,” sung by Lady D. That song was inspired by the life, courage, and heart of John Lewis. What both songs share is a message of courage, inclusion, and shared purpose that is ever more needed now in America. We sat down with them via email to talk about the chemistry of birthing songs and the story behind “Be the Change,” which features Sowell on lead vocals and guitar with Ammed Solomon on drums; John Inghram on bass; Ryan Kennedy on guitars; and Dave Shrewsbury on keys, with harmony vocals by The Sea The Sea (Mira and Chuck Costa). The song was produced by Sowell and produced, mixed, and mastered by Dan Bailey’s Elmridge Productions in Beckley WV. The music video was shot by Bobby Lee Messer and co-produced by him and Douglas John Imbrogno. Much of the video was shot in West Virginia.

CLICK TO VIEW | “BE THE CHANGE,” an Original Music Video of a song by Ron Sowell & Jon Wikstrom
“BE THE CHANGE,” an Original Music Video of a song by Ron Sowell & Jon Wikstrom

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: What was the initial inspiration for “Be the Change”? The ‘a-ha’ speck of rock inside the oyster’s mouth, so to speak, that led to a pearl of a song? Who wrote what and how did the tune develop?

Ron: The initial spark for “Be the Change” hit me because of all the hateful interactions between people and the angry judgments we had seen since last summer leading up to the election. I wondered — how do we get out of this? What can one person do? How could we each take personal responsibility and dare to think we might change the world? Or at least our little corner of it?

“Maybe we could learn to listen to each other. Is that crazy? ~ Ron Sowell

Jon: This song developed the way they always do for us. One of us shows up with an idea we are excited about and finds out if the other one of us gets excited, too. Process-wise, we both know that the song comes first, not our tender egos. We’ve never worried about who does exactly what to contribute, like who wrote which line, who had which melodic idea. We’ve both known songwriters who get territorial about those things. But we’ve always wanted to keep an open flow between us. However, by the end, we both have to fully agree that whatever we’ve written clearly serves the song best.

Image from “Be the Change” music video.

WVVILE: Given the fractious, aggressive, and divided lay of the land in America and the world, what are your hopes for what a single song can do out there on the troubled waters of the world?

Ron: As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Our sincere hope is that injecting this song into the greater conversation might help influence people to be a little more compassionate, understanding, and less judgmental. Maybe we could learn to listen to each other. Is that crazy?

UPDATE: Check out this march4.2021 West Virginia Public Radio interview (text and audio) with Ron Sowell and Douglas John Imbrogno on the creative collaboration between the “Be the Change” songwriters and As the editor of WestVirginiaVille says to WVPB’s Eric Douglas:

WVVILLE: How long have you been collaborating as songwriters? When did you meet and realize, hey, we should try to write some songs together—and how many tunes do you have under your belt(s)?

Jon: It’s shocking to say this, but we’ve been working together for thirty years! I grew up in Charleston WV, and was a huge Putnam County Pickers and Stark Raven fan, but never knew Ron till 1990. I had moved to Nashville to write songs and was home visiting my mom. I wanted to use Triangle Audio to record some demos, but Ron had it booked that week. I called to ask if he’d let me have one of his days — and he gave me a flat “No.” But we did get to talking and one thing led to another.

It turns out that quarantine creates ideal songwriting conditions. ~ Jon Wikstrom

Ron and I did a lot of writing together and with others in Nashville for the ten years I was there. We’ve written dozens of songs together and have been on a renewed writing jag for the last 18 months. It turns out that quarantine creates ideal songwriting conditions.

WVVILLE: How do you work through the inevitable disputes and disagreements and fights when you hit roadblocks? Or have you never had a disputation over what to do next in a song and — Mother Teresa-like — beam at one another from your respective cities?

Ron: Well, again, the song comes first. If we can’t agree on some part of it, we’ll look for a third way until we find one that works for both of us. And the song is always better for it. It may take a while, but we’re always happy by the end. It’s gotten easier, I think, over the years. We’ve had a lot of practice!

Jon: Right. I think that for any collaboration to work, both parties have to be similar enough in taste and values for the work to make sense, but then also be different enough that what comes out is something other —and maybe better than either would have created alone. Otherwise, why bother? Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

WVVILLE: Which of you is Simon and which Garfunkel — Lennon or McCartney — Cheech or Chong — Batman or Robin?

Ron: I only mean what I’m going to say in one, extremely limited way: we are most like Lennon and McCartney because we stole their model of partnership: they agreed early on that whatever song got written, they would both claim equal authorship for it and move along. Now, in terms of what we’re really like when we write, it’s way more of a Cheech and Chong thing — and Jon likes to believe he’s Batman.

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“LAY THAT BURDEN DOWN”: A Musical Homage to John Lewis, Sung by Lady D: sep24.2020: Check out the world premiere of the music video of the Ron Sowell/Jon Wikstrom song “Lay Down That Burden,” sung by Lady D and inspired by the life, courage, and heart of John Lewis, whose example is ever more needed now in America.

SONGS of WEST VIRGINIA | “I Know I’m Home”: june22.2020 | The tune “I Know I’m Home” kicks off a new WestVirginiaVille series showcasing original “Songs of West Virginia.” The tune was co-written by Al Smith and Ron Sowell, the leader of the “Mountain Stage” band. Sowell was a wandering minstrel who landed here and found some harmony. And stayed for good.

MUSICVIDEO: “Winter Walking,” when it’s not such a wonderland: feb16.2021: A long winter grips the land. Add in cabin-fever weariness from a year-long COVID quarantine—and you can be forgiven if it seems like we are living through “a winter that never dies.” Here’s a music video about that.

VIDEO: Other ways of looking at a Mail Pouch barn: feb16.2021: Mail Pouch barn signs became such an iconic, familiar image, showcased in tens of thousands of similarly framed snapshots, postcards, and saturated photographs that they are almost impossible to see afresh. We give it a go in “Chew This Way.”

VIDEO: “Chasing Birds in Snow”: feb10.2021: Take a 2-minute excursion into the heart of the heart of Nature, as a bunch of birds play leapfrog in the midst of a West Virginia snow squall.

VIDEO: “The Edge of Day”: feb9.2021: Thoughts on high while at the edge of day. An original short video production featuring imagery and music by Bobby Lee Messer and words by Kim Wilkinson.

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