'American Epic': Inside Jack White and Friends' Obsessive Roots-Music Doc

How new film traces the evolution of blues, country and more – and reconnects musicians from Nas to Willie Nelson with long-lost recording techniques

The creators of the new 'American Epic' series discuss how their film resurrects the country's lost musical history. Credit: ©2017 Lo-Max Records Ltd.

Years before he became obsessed with creating "the Lawrence of Arabia of music documentaries," filmmaker Bernard MacMahon was just a young music fan in South London, hearing an album by Mississippi John Hurt for the first time. He remembers those late-Twenties folk-blues recordings as strangely intimate: "There didn't seem to be any filter between performer and me."

That was his introduction to a sound and era that has now led to his four-part American Epic music documentary, which airs starting Tuesday on PBS and explores the earliest recordings of folk, blues, country, Cajun and Hawaiian music, and more. Along the way, MacMahon attracted the support of executive producers Jack White, T Bone Burnett and Robert Redford, who also narrates and has referred to that musical era as "the first time America heard itself."

"All of us have a common foe, and that's forgetfulness – where you forget where you came from and who you are," Burnett told Rolling Stone. "We all appreciate that link to our history. We need that."

Burnett was sitting with Elton John in Los Angeles when MacMahon first explained the American Epic project, and both were astonished with what had been collected for the documentary. Burnett has his own history reintroducing Americans to their musical roots, including as producer of the Grammy-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack in 2000. John offered his support and ultimately performed a new song, "2 Fingers of Whiskey," in the closing episode, American Epic Sessions, with White on electric guitar.

The goal was not simply to retell the Wikipedia version of the story. MacMahon and producer Allison McGourty spent a decade seeking original sources in the field, going from "family to family," MacMahon says. They discovered artifacts and previously unknown photographs of such originators as Son House, the Memphis Jug Band and West Virginia mine workers the Williamson Brothers and Dick Justice, whose small output included a haunted classic recording of the ancient murder ballad "Henry Lee." (That recording inspired a 1996 cover by PJ Harvey and Nick Cave.)

"All these different musicians and styles of music – recordings and people I'd never heard of that just had sadness and stories – I felt, man, this is something that people really need to know about," says blues veteran Taj Mahal, who is interviewed in the documentary and performs blues and Hawaiian songs in the final episode. "It's music about people's lives in different tempos."

In 2006, the research and interviews were mainly a personal project for MacMahon, and not part of a planned documentary. That year, a trio of old Delta bluesmen – Honeyboy Edwards, Homesick James and Robert Lockwood – were traveling to England to appear at a small, obscure music festival. "A voice inside me said, 'I need to take a camera crew and film there,'" MacMahon recalls. "'Someday I'm going to need this.'"

He interviewed them for hours on camera, documenting their memories of Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. They also assessed a later generation of blues singers who didn't exactly share the same life experiences of original Delta shouters. "They don't plow the mules. That's what makes the voice, see?" explains Homesick James with a laugh in that film footage. "They ain't done hollered behind a mule, 'Hey! Whoa! Haw! Gee! Get over there!"

All three died soon after their U.K. trip, underlining the urgency of MacMahon's project, which became a serious documentary at the urging of McGourty. It was first commissioned by BBC Arena. "It felt like a divine force was pushing me to do it," says MacMahon. "This is the last time the story can be told before everyone is dead. A lot of the people I was interviewing – some were approaching 100. ... It touched me. I remember thinking, 'These are the unsung people of America. They had this one moment to put their thoughts and feelings on a record.'"

MacMahon and McGourty traveled with a film crew from the U.K. to the shores of Oahu (exploring the deeply influential lap-slide guitar tradition there) and to the Mississippi Delta, the old mining towns of Appalachia to the Gulf of Mexico, digging into the history of blues, country, sacred Hopi Native American songs and Mexican American corridos ballads.

"It's really noticeable where the music comes from in the different landscapes," says the Scotland-born McGourty, who produced the series with Duke Erikson (of the band Garbage). "That was when the idea crystallized there was a bigger story that needed to be told."

As American Epic explains, the explosion of styles heard in the film was the result of a monumental collision of commerce and creative inspiration in the late Twenties. As radio became increasingly popular, record sales in the metropolitan U.S. saw a significant drop as fans began listening to their favorite songs for free. Labels responded by sending new state-of-the-art recording devices into rural America, with the plan of selling records of local musicians back to local listeners.

It turned out that the whole country wanted to hear what the rest of the United States sounded like. "It was a watershed time for the record industry," says Burnett. "The record companies that couldn't sell music in New York went down South and started recording people where they didn't have electricity. This whole process was begun of inventing rock & roll and hillbilly music and everything else that led to the Beatles and Nas."

The ancient machine that made those early recordings included a lathe for cutting directly to wax, with the game-changing new Western Electric microphone and amplifier. Instead of electricity, the cutting lathe was powered by a weight and pulley that slowly lowered to the floor. That machine was considered lost to history, but engineer Nicholas Bergh reassembled a working version from spare parts found around the globe.

"That guy cannot get enough credit," MacMahon says of Bergh. "That is like you're in the engine room of a giant 1920s cruise ship and you're the only guy who knows how this enormous engine works."

That led to more than two weeks of sessions with the gear produced by White and Burnett in a small recording studio across the street from Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. Among the artists gathered to perform vintage songs and some originals were Beck, Alabama Shakes, the Avett Brothers, Los Lobos, Pokey LaFarge, Steve Martin with Edie Brickell, and the Americans.

The recordings re-create a crisp texture recognizable from records of the time, but without the crackling noises of a vintage 78. Burnett calls the recording method "a very high form of analog art – it's the equivalent of an oil painting. A digital copy is the equivalent of a Polaroid."

One early Sessions highlight is rapper Nas performing a faithful rendition of the Memphis Jug Band's streetwise "On the Road Again" with fiddle, jug and banjo accompaniment, a blend that still sounds like contemporary hip-hop. "It's eye-opening, but then you realize this music's been going on a long time," says Burnett. "The surface changes and the technology changes – the substance doesn't."

The old machine occasionally broke down. Early in the Sessions episode, White reverts to his former career as an upholsterer to rescue a day with Los Lobos after the strap holding the machine's weight snaps. He's quickly back at the sewing machine in his suit and fedora like a superhero needleworker.

"He was a big advocator of getting back to purer forms of recording ... less of the artifice. He very quickly got a grip on how the machine worked," MacMahon says of White's hands-on work. "That's how the [original] sessions would have worked. There would have been someone like Jack."

The reverse-engineering required to get the machine to work meant Bergh and the producers could create vivid recordings of the modern performances, but also provided knowledge used to pull higher-fidelity sound from the old recordings. The startlingly clear results can be heard in the documentary and on an accompanying five-disc box set of the music of American Epic (released on CD by Columbia/Legacy and on vinyl by White's Third Man).

In the final performance of Sessions, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard perform the duet "The Only Man Wilder Than Me." Haggard has a look of complete joy on his face throughout the session in the old-timey recording set-up once used by his musical heroes. Later, Haggard asked if he could record his next album on the same contraption, but he died before it could happen.

The series includes the story of MacMahon's original inspiration, Mississippi John Hurt, who recorded several songs for the Okeh label in 1928 before going silent for 35 years. He worked as a sharecropper for decades and was tracked down for rediscovery during the Sixties folk movement. He didn't realize anyone had remembered him or his music.

For Taj Mahal, Hurt was a touchstone during a turbulent decade. "Those were some pretty doggone dangerous times. And to try to really find a mentor or a sound or a style of music that centered you, it made you peaceful on the inside so you could make some better choices than a lot of these guys living dangerously," he recalls of Hurt and other American folk-blues singers. "That's what those guys meant to me. They kept me focused."