Long before digital, before tape, before vinyl, a machine was invented – a jewel of the industrial age. It was the machine that captured and introduced American music first to America, and then to the world.
In this one-off film, American Epic: The Sessions, the beautiful engineering of that original machine has been lovingly reassembled and, in the heart of old Hollywood, in a recreation of the atmosphere and conditions of America’s first ever recording studios, today’s music superstars roll the epic on.
Artists including Elton John, Willie Nelson, the late Merle Haggard, Alabama Shakes, Jack White, Nas, Ana Gabriel, Beck, Los Lobos and Steve Martin test their skills against the demands of the recording machine that made American music what it is today.
No equalisation, no edits, no overdubs – no this, that or the other – and no retakes. Today’s artists face the same conditions as their heroes Jimmie Rodgers, Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lydia Mendoza, The Breaux Family and The Carter Family.
With his stunning band, today’s high priest of traditional American music, Jack White, is the master of ceremonies. Aided and abetted by White, today’s legends are given a once in a lifetime chance to live the experience of the founding mothers and fathers, their idols, and remake the sound that changed music forever.
The disc is cut on a lathe driven by a weight and a mechanical pulley. The pulley and the disc allow for only three minutes of recording time and once started, the recording cannot be stopped. The sound of these recordings for American Epic is crystal clear and of an astonishing depth. Those qualities have inevitably been lost through the wear and tear of time in the records that have survived from long ago.
American Epic has recreated this elemental, strange and magical technology. This is a music story with a difference, one that goes back 100 years to where it all started.
American Epic: The Sessions airs Sunday 4 June 2017 on BBC Four.