American Epic: The Sessions Various artists Columbia/Sony One of the highlights (and audience prizewinner) of last year’s Sydney Film Festival was the American Epic series of documentaries by British filmmaker Bernard MacMahon and producers Allison McGourty and Duke Erikson, the product of six years of research and filming across the US to capture the history of American roots music. The films, featuring a cast that includes executive producers T-Bone Burnett, Jack White and, as narrator, Robert Redford, are fascinating studies of long-forgotten pioneers of blues, folk and country music in the US, workingclass and hardworking amateur and professional musos who paved the way in the early part of the 20th century for a recording industry none of them could begin to imagine. Part of the project and the subject of one of the documentaries, The American Epic Sessions, brought together a wealth of contemporary talent — from Elton John to Alabama Shakes, Beck to Bettye LaVette — to record material using the same primitive recording equipment with which budding record company executives set off around the US in the late 1920s looking for talent. This double album features the highlights of those sessions and it’s an exquisite representation of the primitive power of American roots music and its enduring charm. Alabama Shakes set the bar high with the opening Killer Diller Blues, a stomping country blues, with singer Brittany Howard displaying the same raw energy as the song’s most famous performer in the 40s, Memphis Minnie. Young bluesman Blind Boy Paxton does some fine picking on the old favourite Candy Man and Rhiannon Giddens, with a voice steeped in blues and gospel, completely owns Ida Cox’s One Hour Mama and the a capella reading of old English folk song Pretty Saro, while Pokey LaFarge brings his jazzy swagger to St Louis Blues and the acoustic stroll Josephine. There are some wonderful collaborations, including two of Merle Haggard’s final performances: a duet with his buddy Willie Nelson on Haggard’s Old Fashioned Love, a sprightly country romp that closes the second album, and their co-write The Only Man Wilder Than Me. Steve Martin and Edie Brickell give a traditional bluegrass sheen to the 20s standard The Coo Coo Bird. The most surprising and rewarding pairing, however, comes from John and White, teaming up on piano and guitar respectively to sing a new song, Two Fingers of Whiskey, that reeks of bar-room joie de vivre. Other worthy contributions come from Ashley Monroe ( Like a Rose, Jubilee), LaVette ( Nobody’s Dirty Business, When I Woke Up This Morning and Beck ( Fourteen Rivers, Fourteen Floods), but all 32 tracks are worth the price of entry. There’s also a companion book, with contributions from some of the participants and rare photographs and posters from the pioneering spirits who gave a voice to — and provided the first recordings of — music that stirs the soul.