Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard knew a thing or two about catching lightning in a bottle. But when the recording industry was still in its infancy, nearly a century ago, that phrase had a slightly different connotation: In an era that was not only pre-digital but even pre-electrical, musicians only had one chance – roughly three minutes – to record the perfect take. Nelson and Haggard re-create those bygone days in a new clip from the American Epic Sessions documentary, premiering tonight on PBS. (Check local listings.)
American Epic Sessions is the feature-length concert film follow-up to the three-part American Epic documentary, which debuted last month and counts Jack White, T Bone Burnett and Robert Redford among its executive directors. Last month’s series focused on the history of the recording industry from the 1920s and 1930s, chronicling the work of such legendary performers as the Carter Family, Blind Willie Johnson and Lead Belly.
The new American Epic Sessions goes a step further by re-creating those comparatively rudimentary recording environments and having modern-day stars make one-off recordings on the equipment. Engineer Nicholas Bergh reassembled parts from the 1920s, including a pulley-driven recorder that Charley Patton used, to build a vintage, six-foot tall apparatus with a single microphone and live record-cutting lathe.
The star-studded cast of artists who deliver performances include Elton John, Beck, the Avett Brothers, Alabama Shakes, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, and Taj Mahal, but Nelson and Haggard’s duet seems particularly well-tailored to the concept. They perform “The Only Man Wilder Than Me,” the Hag’s composition that closed out their 2015 LP Django & Jimmie, and it’s a brittle, haunting song that sounds as old and weathered as the equipment itself.
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The fact that Haggard has since died only adds heft to the video, particularly given that the work of many of the artists featured in American Epic went largely unappreciated until decades after their deaths.
American Epic Sessions, directed by Bernard McMahon, Allison McGourty and Duke Erickson, airs tonight on PBS at 8:00 p.m. ET, and in the U.K. Friday night on BBC at 11:00 p.m. A soundtrack to the documentary, titled American Epic: The Sessions, will be released by Columbia on June 9th and in triple-LP, 180-gram vinyl form by Third Man Records on June 16th.