PBS and the BBC Arena have announced American Epic, the extraordinary story of the trailblazing era when country-wide, the music of ordinary Americans was recorded for the very first time.
The three-part historical documentary and feature-length film, showcasing contemporary artists in recording sessions, will air in the U.S. and U.K. this fall.
Executive Produced by T Bone Burnett, Robert Redford and Jack White, American Epic takes us on a journey across time to the birth of modern music, when the musical strands of a diverse nation first combined, sparking a cultural renaissance that forever transformed the future of music and the world.
In addition to the broadcast, American Epic will include companion music releases. Columbia Records will release contemporary performances from The American Epic Series. Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings will release a companion series of archival recordings, featuring groundbreaking audio restoration of 1920s and 1930s recordings by Lo-Max Films, Nick Bergh and Peter Henderson. Third Man Records will release a deluxe box of vinyl records.
Two British filmmakers, Bernard MacMahon and Allison McGourty, have pieced together this extraordinary story set in the late 1920s when record company talent scouts toured America with a recording machine and for the first time captured the raw expression of an emerging culture. It democratized music and gave a voice to the poorest in the nation.
The filmmakers follow the recording machine’s trail across the United States to rediscover the families whose recordings would lead to the development of blues, country, gospel, Hawaiian, Cajun and folk music – without which there would be no rock, pop, R&B or hip hop today. Over three episodes the remarkable lives of these seminal musicians are revealed through previously unseen film footage, unpublished photographs, and exclusive interviews with some of the last living witnesses to that era, when the musical strands of a diverse nation first emerged, sparking a cultural revolution whose reverberations are felt to this day.
For The American Epic Sessions the filmmakers have re-assembled the recording machine that allowed America to first hear itself. They have replicated the atmosphere of America’s seminal 1920s field recordings down to the smallest detail, with top American artists recording straight to wax, using all the original microphones, amplifiers, and other equipment from that era. This is the first time that any performer has been able to use this machinery for over 80 years. Led by producers Jack White and T Bone Burnett, today’s legends are given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to relive the experience of the founding mothers and fathers, their idols, and remake the music that changed America and changed the world.
The American Epic Sessions features performances by Alabama Shakes, The Americans, The Avett Brothers, Beck, Frank Fairfield, Ana Gabriel, Rhiannon Giddens, Merle Haggard, Bobby Ingano, Elton John, Auntie Geri Kuhia, Pokey LaFarge, Bettye LaVette, Los Lobos, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Taj Mahal, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, Fred Martin and The Levite Camp, Ashley Monroe, Nas, Willie Nelson, Charlie Kaleo Oyama, Blind Boy Paxton, Raphael Saadiq, and Jack White.
Director Bernard MacMahon explained, “American Epic is the story of one of the great moments in American history – when the voices of working people, minorities, and rural people throughout the country were first heard, and how the discovery of these artists forever changed the sound of American popular music and introduced new genres such as R&B, rock and country. It celebrates American technological innovation, diversity and freedom of speech.”
Producer and co-creator Allison McGourty said, “We traveled the length and breadth of America, from Cleveland, Ohio to the Gulf of Mexico, and from New York to Hawaii, in our quest to discover the identities and stories of America’s earliest recorded musicians. We captured testimonials from the last living witnesses and direct descendants of America’s musical pioneers. This is the last time their story can be told before everyone who was there is gone.”
“This is America’s greatest untold story,” said Robert Redford, an Executive Producer. “It’s an account of the cultural revolution that ultimately united a nation.”
“These musicians we profile are the real American heroes,” said T Bone Burnett, an Executive Producer. “They set out from the darkness with nothing but a guitar on their backs, put out their thumbs and conquered the world.”
“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,” said Jack White, an Executive Producer. “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.”
Duke Erikson, producer and co-creator, said, “The more we found out about these recordings, the more we realized how little was known about how they were recorded. We became obsessed with figuring it out, with actually finding the machine that was used to record this amazing music.”
Beth Hoppe, Chief Programming Executive and General Manager, General Audience Programming, PBS, said, “We wanted to share this uniquely American story with our audience because of its exploration and celebration of original forms of music and early technologies. PBS has broadcast concerts and documentaries about a diverse variety of music genres over the years, and American Epic captures the foundation of American music history through the lens of some incredible untold stories.”
Anthony Wall, Executive Producer for the BBC ARENA said, “When Bernard and Allison took me through their ideas and research, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Arena has always been committed to this music but American Epic is the most comprehensive account of how and why it came to be recorded in the first place that I’ve encountered. The combination of the multi-ethnic context and acutely researched individual stories make it irresistible. The accompanying SESSIONS film is a delight. It’s a joy to see the respect and excitement so many of today’s best musicians bring to the discipline of recording in the same way as their heroes of decades ago.”
Stephen Segaller, Executive in Charge, WNET, said, “It’s not often that you’re pitched a project that is entirely fresh, immediately visual, and seems likely to change your whole understanding of cultural history. American Epic is that project – a documentary series that gives us an amazing narrative of cultural enterprise and creative energy, touching on deep American history – and a recording sessions vérité film that keeps on outdoing itself as artist after artist revels in the old-time music and brings it to new levels.”
Alan Yentob, Creative Director, BBC, said, “What a great adventure this is and what a brilliant cast of musicians and storytellers past and present to bring this untold history back to life. American Epic has captured the imagination of everyone involved in the making of it and I believe it is destined to do the same for millions of viewers all over the world.”
Adam Block, President of Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings, said, “Simply put, Legacy exists in no small part to preserve and perpetuate our country’s musical heritage. For us, American Epic is a celebration of the men and women who established the foundation of virtually everything that we as an industry do today. It is one of the most remarkable cultural, technological and of course musical journeys of all time.”
Mark Williams, EVP of A&R for Columbia Records, said, “Listening to the incredible artists that contributed to these sessions, we see a direct link with the musicians of the past. As if time hasn’t existed and the same spirit, truth and soul of the earlier performers are as much part of the present as it is the past. This record isn’t a tribute record as much as it is a continuation of the same story and messages that have been passed along to great artist of today.”
John Tefteller, founder of Blues Images and consultant to Lo-Max Films, said, “The new sound transfer techniques by Lo-Max has taken everything to a new level above and beyond anything anyone has ever heard before. 1920s early 1930s blues records have never sounded so good. It sounds like you are in the room with the performers. People are going to be knocked out when they hear how these records sound now.”
Robert Santelli, Executive Director of the Grammy Museum, said, “The Grammy Museum is excited to create education and public programs that will complement such an extraordinary series and story. Our goal is to engage young people in the history of American music so that they become more informed listeners and better understand the legacy that supports much of contemporary music. American Epic will allow us to do just that.”
Jan Younghusband, Head of Music TV Commissioning for BBC Music says: “We are thrilled to present this outstanding series on BBC television and to promote it across our BBC Music platforms. BBC Music is a new initiative committed to bringing the best in music to our audiences. It is great that this project is coming through the world’s two leading public broadcasters, the BBC and PBS, working together.”
Funding for American Epic is made possible by generous support from Anne Ray Charitable Trust. Funding is also provided by PBS and public television viewers.
American Epic will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from PBS Distribution through ShopPBS.org. The film will also be available for digital download.