"For the first time, America suddenly heard herself—and began to communicate with herself—through music," director Bernard MacMahon told Wired in an interview published yesterday. His new PBS documentary series American Epic tells the story of the recording lathe, the portable machine that radically democratized American music in the 1920s, being taken to previously unheard parts of the country. "We're living in its wake now," MacMahon said. "It's very much a precursor to people sharing something on SoundCloud immediately after they've captured it."
MacMahon wanted to find musicians who could record on the machine now and recreate the urgency of those original recordings, but working lathes—even footage of the machines in operation—were almost impossible to find for the documentary. So MacMahon brought in Nicholas Bergh, who had rebuilt one faithful to the original, and then drafted Jack White and T Bone Burnett as producers (of course). Then, the musicians: Nas, Beck, Elton John, The Avett Brothers, Willie Nelson, even the late Merle Haggard. You should absolutely watch this video of Nas recording the 1928 blues track "On the Road Again" with 73-year-old blues harmonica maestro Charlie Musselwhite, if only to hear Nas discuss the links between rap and the blues.
But the video above, the latest to be released from the show, has Alabama Shakes recording "Killer Diller," popularized by Memphis Minnie in the 1940s, onto the lathe using instruments from the 1920s. The four-piece have a particular gift for reinvigorating the past and adding their own, unique modern Southern edge to their work. It's all propelled the Brittany Howard's effortless soul, those touches of grit that she finds when she hurls her voice upwards without warning. Watch the video above. The American Epic Sessions Special, with every Burnett- and White-produced performance, airs June 6 on PBS.
Lead photo by Paul Hudson via Flickr.
Alex Robert Ross is on Twitter.