Jack White, T Bone Burnett to Produce 'American Epic' Music Documentary

Beck, Willie Nelson, Nas, Elton John, Avett Brothers and more contributed to project, which also includes a feature film and album series

A still from 'American Epic,' a new film tracing the roots of contemporary music.

Jack White, T Bone Burnett and Robert Redford have teamed up to executive produce American Epic, a historical music project encompassing a three-part documentary series, a feature-length film and companion album releases. The documentary and film will explore the pivotal early use of a primitive recording machine used by record companies in the 1920s as they toured America and "for the first time captured the raw expression of an emerging culture." The American Epic documentary and film, directed by Bernard MacMahon, are scheduled to air on PBS and BBC Arena this fall.

For the American Epic series, the filmmakers chronicled the unnamed recording machine as it travels the U.S. and discovers musicians that led to the development of "blues, country, gospel, Hawaiian, Cajun and folk music." The three-episode project explores the stories of these formative players, using previously unseen film footage, unpublished photographs and "exclusive interviews with some of the last living witnesses to that era, when the musical strands of a diverse nation first emerged, sparking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."

In the film, The American Epic Sessions, the crew reassembles the recording machine by replicating every element of the materials – including the original microphones and amplifiers – and inviting an array of high-profile musicians to record in that 1920s-styled atmosphere. Jack White, Beck, Elton John, Nas, Willie Nelson, the Avett Brothers, Alabama Shakes, Los Lobos and Steve Martin & Edie Brickell are among the featured musicians to use the machine. 

American Epic Trailer

Columbia Records will compile some of the contemporary performances for an unspecified album or series, and Sony Music's Legacy Recordings will release a series of archival recordings featuring "groundbreaking audio restoration of 1920s and 1930s recordings by Lo-Max Films, Nick Bergh and Peter Henderson." White's Third Man Records is planning a deluxe vinyl box set. 

"These musicians we profile are the real American heroes," Burnett said in a statement. "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," added White. "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."