American Epic, a new music documentary mini-series executive-produced by Jack White, T Bone Burnett and Robert Redford, will be coming to PBS and the BBC next month.
With narration from Redford, the series will explore a point in music history described as the “Big Bang of modern popular music,” when record companies went exploring the country in the ‘20s to find new markets and in turn ended up recording people and styles of music that hadn’t been heard in that way before, including Delta blues, Appalachian country and jugband, Native American drumming, Hawaiian music and more. The film uses the tagline “The First Time America Heard Itself,” which feels like a fairly apt description.
White explains the significance of what those recordings meant, stating:
In American Epic we can examine how important the fact is that when phonograph records were invented, for the first time ever, women, minorities, poor rural men and even children were given the opportunity to say whatever they wanted in song, for the whole world to hear, shockingly without much censorship. What they were allowed to say on phonograph recordings, they were not allowed to speak in public or in person. That is an astounding thought.
The documentary features names big and small, from legendary groups and musicians like The Carter Family and Charley Patton, to steel guitar inventor Joseph Kekuku and native Hopi Indian chanters.
The documentary portion will be accompanied by a film called The American Epic Sessions, which will serve as the project’s finale, bringing together a host of musicians to record songs using a replicated version of the recording rig used at that time. According to a press release, it’s the only such machine currently in existence, and was put together over 10 years by engineer Nicholas Bergh. This feels right up White’s vintage recording machine-loving alley, and he appears to lead the sessions, appearing in the trailer, which you can watch below, recording with Elton John. Other performers include Alabama Shakes, Beck, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, The Avett Brothers, Taj Mahal and Nas.
The recordings from those sessions will be released by Columbia Records, while Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings will be putting out a companion soundtrack to the documentary along with a 100-song box set and other archival material from the period. White’s Third Man Records will handle vinyl releases from the series.
American Epic airs on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. EST starting May 16, with The American Epic Sessions capping things off on June 6, starting at 8 p.m. As this series was originally scheduled to air back in 2015, it’s nice to see it make it past whatever roadblocks held it up and beam its way into our homes. You can watch the official trailer and a preview below, along with footage from Willie Nelson’s performance at Woodstock ‘99 via the Paste Cloud.