‘American Epic’ Gives You a New History of Music

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Photo: PBS

American Epic has spent the past couple of weeks reintroducing America to its musical past. This documentary series, a co-production of PBS and the BBC, has traced history as far back as the 1920s: The show’s premise is that this was the decade when new portable recording techniques allowed various musical historians, cultural anthropologists, and businesspeople to go out and record many pioneering blues, folk, and country performers for the first time in the artists’ careers. The result, as the show puts it, is “the first time America heard itself.” The discussions, photographs, and footage of long-gone performers has been enlightening.

This week, however, American Epic concludes with recording sessions with contemporary artists, most of them performing old music. Project producers Jack White and T Bone Burnett, working with engineer Nicholas Bergh, have reassembled a 1920s-style system that records directly onto wax discs. Elton John, the Alabama Shakes, Raphael Saadiq, Nas, Rhiannon Giddens, Taj Mahal, and the team of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard (filmed before the latter’s death last year) are among those who pass through the antique-recording studio in various sessions. The show fetishizes the old-timey recording process a little bit — Jack White is especially prone to this kind of preciousness — but for the most part the music sounds very good, and sometimes great.

To hear Taj Mahal tear through Charley Patton’s “High Water Everywhere,” or the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard rip up Memphis Minnie’s “Killer Diller,” is to experience intense pleasure. Rhiannon Giddens — who was introduced to some TV viewers via her current recurring role on Nashville — is amazingly good both singing and acting out her version of Victoria Spivey’s hit “One Hour Mama.”

There are segments that play out like stunts, such as Elton John entering the studio with lyrics “just delivered” by his longtime songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin. John hammers out a melody on the piano along with input from White and Burnett, and the result is a pretty nice tune. But it can’t compare with the performances cited above, or with Raphael Saadiq’s smooth-soul version of the Memphis Jug Band song “Stealin,’ Stealin.’”

American Epic airs Tuesday night on PBS. Check your local listings.

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