AMER­I­CAN EPIC

Jack White helps re­vive an an­cient tech­nol­ogy, and the mu­si­cians it cap­tured, in a se­ries of films broad­cast transat­lanti­cally in May.

Mojo (UK) - - Contents - Danny Ec­cle­ston

An up­com­ing film se­ries on US pop­u­lar song of the ’20s and ’30s, Amer­i­can Epic is also a record­ing project where, with help from Jack White, names in­clud­ing Wil­lie Nelson, El­ton John, Taj Ma­hal and Nas cut songs old and new on a vin­tage Scully lathe! Jack tells all on this ex­tra­or­di­nary retro-mod­ern en­deav­our.

There’s a price­less mo­ment in Amer­i­can Epic: The Ses­sions, the fi­nal in­stal­ment of a group of films slated for broad­cast on BBC Four and PBS in mid-May. Jack White has helped per­suade a pro­ces­sion of star mu­si­cians to pop into a Los Angeles stu­dio and cut tunes straight to a vin­tage Scully lathe – just the type of ma­chine that would have recorded

folk, blues and coun­try artists in the 1930s. Trou­ble is, the web­bing strap which holds the weight that de­scends to spin the lathe at a fixed RPM, sud­denly snaps. Disaster! Ex­cept… not when the ses­sion’s prime mover is a for­mer master up­hol­sterer. White jumps into his car, film-mak­ers in at­ten­dance, and races to a lo­cal cleaner/tai­lor, com­man­deers a sewing ma­chine and ef­fects the re­pair him­self. The day is saved. And noth­ing could bet­ter un­der­line a point White makes about the his­tory of Amer­i­can pop­u­lar record­ing and its ground­ing in good old op­por­tunism and in­ge­nu­ity. “What’s great about Amer­ica is, some­one will work hard in some garage or base­ment some­where and in­vent some­thing in­cred­i­bly cul­tured and life-al­ter­ing for ev­ery­body to ex­pe­ri­ence,” says White. “The next step is to fig­ure out how to mon­e­tise it. And that’s the part that starts to get re­ally in­ter­est­ing… be­cause once you are aim­ing to try to make money off of a for­mat of some kind, then happy accidents start hap­pen­ing. And that’s how we ac­ci­den­tally got all these amaz­ing artists to record, who never would have been recorded.” Amer­i­can Epic, di­rected by Bernard MacMa­hon, pro­duced by Al­li­son McGourty and Duke Erik­son, and co-pro­duced by the BBC’s Arena, WNET and PBS (with ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­tion cred­its for White, T Bone Bur­nett and Robert Red­ford, who nar­rates) is an ex­pe­di­tion to re­dis­cover some of those amaz­ing artists. The first three of four films are straight doc­u­men­taries, delv­ing into the sto­ries of Amer­i­can archetypes The Carter Fam­ily, Mis­sis­sippi John Hurt and The Mem­phis Jug Band, and trac­ing mu­si­cal threads in­clud­ing the Hawai­ian steel gui­tar boom and its im­pact on the devel­op­ment of coun­try, and the songs of West Vir­ginia’s coal-min­ing coun­try – mu­sic all orig­i­nally aimed at lo­cal mar­kets. “We are ex­tremely lucky in the 1920s and ’30s that rural artists were recorded that would have never been recorded had these com­pa­nies not wanted to sell records to rural peo­ple,” ex­plains White. “And a lot of these songs have changed the world, re­ally.”

“RECORD­ING STU­DIOS HAVE SORT OF BEEN CHURCHES FOR MU­SIC.”

Jack White

The story of the pi­o­neer phase of the US record­ing in­dus­try runs along­side that of the artists, cul­mi­nat­ing in Amer­i­can Epic: The Ses­sions, where con­tem­po­rary acts dis­cover kin­ship with Amer­ica’s record­ing orig­i­nals, with stars in­clud­ing Wil­lie Nelson, Merle Hag­gard, Rhiannon Gid­dens, Alabama Shakes, Taj Ma­hal, Bet­tye LaVette, Beck and rap­per Nas cut­ting tunes from the ’20s to the ’40s plus con­tem­po­rary songs in a vin­tage style, over­seen by White and Bur­nett, us­ing 1920s mi­cro­phones and the Scully lathe. In one of the se­ries’ most ex­tra­or­di­nary mo­ments, El­ton John ar­rives tot­ing a box-fresh lyric by Bernie Taupin and works it up in an in­stant, the song ma­te­ri­al­is­ing in front of the view­ers’ eyes be­fore John and Jack White go for the take. There’s the magic right there. “Record­ing stu­dios in gen­eral have sort of been churches for mu­sic,” says White. “You had to come re­hearsed with your songs ready to go. This is your one mo­ment to do that. And all the record­ings since the be­gin­ning of this record­ing tech­nol­ogy were like that. You came to the room pre­pared for this mo­ment. So that’s like go­ing to church; that’s likeget­ting on your best clothes and go­ing to church for this mo­ment to hap­pen. You can’t fix this later. Any mis­takes that hap­pen are go­ing to be there, in the fin­ished record, which is a great place to be. It’s a scary place to be for some peo­ple too.” Amer­i­can Epic has also in­spired a batch of au­dio re­leases. May 12 sees the emer­gence of Amer­i­can Epic: The Col­lec­tion – a 5-CD, 100-song box set of re­stored orig­i­nal record­ings – and Amer­i­can Epic: The Sound­track –a 15-song high­lights set on Sony Legacy. Record­ings from the Ses­sions in­stal­ment are also due, in 1-CD and 2-CD deluxe pack­ages on Columbia, while Jack White’s Third Man out­fit plan vinyl com­pi­la­tions of artists fea­tured in Amer­i­can Epic, in­clud­ing The Mem­phis Jug Band, and a Ses­sions sound­track. An Amer­i­can Epic book is pub­lished by Si­mon & Schus­ter on May 2.

It was good for our moth­ers, and it’s good enough for me: (from left) Jack White, Wil­lie Nelson and the late, great Merle Hag­gard pre­pare to record The Only Man Wilder Than Me, 2015.

Scully bul­lies: Los Angeles scenes (right, from top) the fa­mous lathe; Alabama Shakes; Jack and band; with El­ton; Taj Ma­hal sings; Edie Brick­ell and Steve Martin; Beck; (be­low) The Mem­phis Jug Band ride the Mis­souri Pa­cific Rail­road.

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