New documentary series explores the birth of American music

Last Updated by Chip Chandler on
Early blues performer Mississippi John Hurt is seen in American Epic.

"American Epic" trailer

By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer

The democratization of American music — and the epic changes it brought — is explored in a new three-part documentary premiering in May.

American Epic debuts at 8 p.m. Tuesday on PBS, with future episodes following at 8 p.m. May 23 and 30.

Executive produced by T Bone Burnett, Robert Redford and Jack White, American Epic shows viewers what happened when, in the 1920s, record company talent scouts toured the country with a recording machine and captured, for the first time, emerging musical cultures.

Filmmakers Bernard MacMahon and Allison McGourty 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.

The record industry collapsed in the 1920s, Burnett said when the series debuted in 2016 at Sundance, "because radio had proliferated in the big cities and people could get music for free; [they] didn't want to pay for it anymore. So the record companies went down South and began recording the poorest people in the country, which led to this extraordinary explosion of blues, country music and rock 'n' roll ... everything we know today."

"Robert Redford’s assertion that American Epic is this country’s most important untold story isn’t hyperbole. The three-part PBS series ... follows the efforts by record companies to capture American music’s genesis and share it with the rest of the country," writes The Independent's Nick Pittman.

Then, on June 6, The American Epic Sessions, a feature-length film, will showcase contemporary artists like Alabama Shakes, The Avett Brothers, Bettye LaVette, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Willie Nelson and the late Merle Haggard, Raphael Saadiq and others as they work with a reassembled recording machine in sessions painstakingly replicating those of the 1920s.

Episodes will be available to watch online the day after they premiere on air.

"American Epic" clip

 

 

Chip Chandler is a digital content producer for Panhandle PBS. He can be contacted at Chip.Chandler@actx.edu, at @chipchandler1 on Twitter and on Facebook.

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