American Epic, a three-part, star-studded documentary examining the birth of the recording industry and the music that went on to the shape the world and popular culture, will be premiere on the BBC in the UK and PBS in the US in May as a joint venture by the two public broadcasters.
Narrated by Robert Redford, the actor also acts as executive producer alongside Jack White and music producer T Bone Burnett. Directed by British filmmaker Bernard McMahon, the documentary series features interviews and performances by White, Willie Nelson, Elton John, Merle Haggard, rapper Nas, Beck, Steve Martin, Rhiannon Giddens, Alabama Shakes and many others.
The film focuses on the emergence of recorded music in the 1920s and 30s which went on to spread American vernacular music both in the US and abroad. It’s a period of time that would go on to have a profound ramification on what was to follow.
“American Epic is a love letter to the United States,” McMahon said in a statement. “It’s 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. It celebrates all I admire about the country - its rich culture, technological innovation, entrepreneurism and its freedom of speech.”
Among the artists featured are the Carter Family, widely regarded as the “first family of country music,” the Memphis Jug Band, blues singer-guitarist Charley Patton, Hopi Indian chanters, Lydia Mendoza, the Breaux Family, Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Willie Johnson.
“This is the story of a profound act of democracy,” Burnett said in the same statement, “when the poorest people in our country were recorded and their stories, their songs and their voices broadcast around the world.
“These early pioneers set a course that led to the extraordinary library of jazz, blues, country, bluegrass, rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop that is our music. This is the story of the United States: A kid leaves home with nothing but a song and conquers the world.”
The series will be accompanied by The American Epic Sessions album. Featuring artists such as Alabama Shakes, Beck, Elton John, Nas, Taj Mahal and many others, the album find these artists recording songs from the period and recorded on a re-assembled recording system from the era.
“This is America’s greatest untold story,” said Robert Redford. “It’s an account of the cultural revolution that ultimately united a nation.”