Emmylou Harris once famously said, “You have to grow up, start paying rent and have your heart broken before you understand country.”
It’s safe to say that Sean Burns shares those sentiments. On his new album Lost Country, the Winnipeg-based artist turns back the clock to a time when country music was about much more than pickup trucks and beer drinking. Accompanied by his stellar band, Sean updates the classic honky-tonk template with 10 tracks that pay tribute to many of Canada’s forgotten country music heroes, some of whom never became known outside of their home regions.
Lost Country is part of Sean’s ongoing work to preserve and promote Canada’s country music legacy, something he did for over five years as host of “Boots & Saddle” on Winnipeg’s CKUW and his podcast The Northern Report, launched in 2021. However, much of Sean’s time is now occupied by his new role as bassist in Corb Lund’s Hurtin’ Albertans, a gig that’s given him additional motivation to expand his own musical pursuits.
Having already released several albums that salute such classic country themes as truck driving songs, and the Bakersfield Sound, Sean’s Lost Country now shines the spotlight on Canada, and from one glimpse of the album cover’s incredible photo of Toronto’s bustling Yonge Street in the 1960s, you know right away that Sean Burns means business.
Although only the most hard core Canadian country music fans will recognize some of the names Sean’s covers—the album package includes some “collectible cards” that provide more background on the artists—the beautiful part of Lost Country is that Burns’ take on songs by the likes of Roy Payne, Dick Damron and Chef Adams makes them sound as fresh as when they were originally recorded.
Although Canadian country music history is focused around the artists who managed to find success south of the border, the truth is that those who never made it down there created music that was just as good, or even better, than their more famous peers. With Lost Country, Sean Burns has done his part to give them their due, while in the process making his own significant mark as part of the global country music renaissance.
Lost Country is clearly a passion project for you. How did the process of making the album unfold?
I could really talk your ear off with an answer for this one but essentially, every album I’ve made with Grant Siemens playing a primary role — as a featured musician, producer and more often co-producer — has come from he and I just spitballing ideas while on tour, usually while driving. I had the idea for a record covering my favourite local legends and regional stars of Canada’s long gone honky-tonk past. I thought the best move was hiring veteran musicians who were there when these songs were new and being blasted off stages in the barrooms. All those fellas I knew, wanted and trusted were in Ontario. Grant and Chris Stringer at Union Sound Company in Toronto are old pals and Stringer has an amazing collection of vintage gear. It all fell together really quickly and six weeks later we flew out to Toronto for three days at Union Sound Company. The band got ‘er done in two days and capped off a job well done with a $120 order from Subway down the street from the studio. It was gross. But the record turned out better than I could have imagined and the experience of working with those fellas, all of them, was a dream.
What went into your final decisions as to which songs to do?
Well you know, we wanted to be sure we covered all of country music’s central themes and styles. Shuffle-heavy, drinkin’ songs, heartbreakers and the kind of nice country music that might inspire a dance. I had a clear idea about who most of the artists I wanted to cover were before we even chose the songs. The last few we chose were among a group of 8-10 we’d considered. Mainly, it came down to what songs would best compliment each other and the band.
In your opinion, was there anything that set Canadian country artists of this era apart from their U.S. peers?
Well, to be perfectly honest, almost all of them weren’t as good as their U.S. peers. I’d argue that’s the same to this day, especially if you’re talking about bigger stars. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s still fantastic music to find and sometimes it’s at your local bar. The fellas we covered though, most of them ended up heading to Toronto at some point or another and the scene there was thriving. Arguably as strong and vibrant as anywhere in America and if you begin comparing local or regional label releases from Texas, Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky, etc. to the Toronto labels like Arc, Paragon/Marathon, then I’d give my vote to our barroom stars like Roy Payne, Chef Adams, June Pasher, Mickey McGivern, Joe Firth et al.
Was it challenging to get that classic country sound in the studio?
No. It’s exactly the kind of country music we’ve all been playing our whole careers. That was part of why it was important to me to hire those veterans such as Mike Weber, Paul Weber, Sean O’Grady, Dennis Conn, Roly Platt, Redd Volkaert and Teddy Hawkins to back me up. They were all there when it was happening and no one plays or sings like that anymore. That experience in invaluable and really helps bring the album the honky-tonk credibility the songs deserve.
You’re also busy as a member of Corb Lund’s Hurtin’ Albertans. How has that possibly changed your perspective on your own music career?
It’s certainly given me some new perspective on the whole thing, the whole life we lead. It’s really made me examine my own path, motives and dedication. I’ve never met someone so focused on their craft and desire to maintain a high quality for their art, records and live shows as Corb. He’s all-in in a way that most of us wish we could be. It’s inspiring, really.