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SoundCheck: The Evolution of Sunset to Burns – How One Band Expanded Its Roots

Courtesy of Sunset to Burns

How much does a band have to change over time before it’s not the same band anymore? For Sunset to Burns, the answer is: a lot. When the band formed in 2011, things seemed stable – from their Polk County roots to their acoustic sound. Even their name was deeply tied to the county. Founding member and guitarist Lucas Roberts explains its origin.

“The name Sunset to Burns is two bridges:  it’s a float trip. It’s from Sunset Bridge on the Pomme de Terre River to Burns Bridge on the Pomme de Terre River,” said Lucas.

Kenson Ashton plays banjo with the band. He said, “I can actually say, yeah, I was in the band over a year not knowing what that meant.”

By 2015, things began to change when a couple of members left the band.  Those who were left—Lucas, Kenson and bassist Jeff Johnson—knew they wanted to continue. Their first move was to pick up guitarist Jeff Thompson, who quickly added an electric guitar to their all-acoustic vibe.

“I specifically remember asking, ‘Do you guys mind if I bring a Telecaster next week?’” said Jeff Thompson.

Eyebrows were raised, but the electric guitar joined the band, followed by drummer Scott Stuffelbaum in 2016. Jeff Johnson remembers when that new sound came together for the first time.

“I can distinctly remember looking at Kenson during a practice when Thompson was playing the Tele and I was just like, ‘Oh man, this is going to be fun,’” said Jeff Johnson.

As their music evolved, so did their practice space.

“The first space was a garage from an old farmhouse that didn’t have a very good supply of power. There were long extension cords employed to get power to certain individuals. The floor may have been slightly damp,” said Jeff Johnson. 

There was a musty smell, dirt on the floor, an old tractor and a few resident wasps and spiders.

“It was a little spooky and dangerous, but it felt like home,” said Jeff Johnson. 

By the time Scott joined the band on drums, Sunset to Burns had moved out of the farmhouse shed to Jeff Johnson’s garage in Dallas County. 

Credit Jessica Balisle / KSMU
Sunset to Burns at KSMU

“Like the Jeffersons, ‘I’m moving on up!’ said Jeff Johnson.

The new digs had everything they could hope for – plenty of power outlets, a clean, dry floor, light, and a view of the cedar trees.

Now, Lucas and Jeff Johnson share the primary songwriting duties. Lucas said, “We will either write one or write the foundation for one separately or together, and then we’ll bring it to each other and we’ll say, ‘Hey, what do you think?’

Kenson has also started bringing songs to the band. And drummer Scott Stuffelbaum brings his own piece to the puzzle.

“My job is to make it more complicated,” said Scott.

It’s not hard to tell that these guys get along really well. Jeff Johnson says they all feel at ease with each other in the songwriting process.

“It’s such a collaborative writing process because nobody has an ego and nobody—nobody but me has an ego. Nobody’s afraid to try anything new,” said Jeff Johnson.

Sunset to Burns has grown from its narrow roots to a tree extending its branches across the region.

“I mean we’ve got Laclede County, we’ve got Dade County, we’ve got Greene County, we’ve got Dallas County, we’ve got Polk County. So, just as the music has expanded, so has the lineup, and I think that the music is starting to take on the look of the whole scope of Southwest Missouri,” said Jeff Johnson.

It can be tough for bands to survive this kind of growth, but it’s clear that this one is in it for the long term.

Thanks for tuning into SoundCheck. I’m Jess Balisle.

Jessica Gray Balisle, a Springfield native, grew up listening to KSMU. When she's not wrangling operations and compliance issues, she co-hosts live music show Studio Live and produces arts and culture stories. Jessica plays bass in local band the Hook Knives. She and her husband Todd live with their two cats, Ellie and Jean-Ralphio, and way too many house plants.
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