PBS digs into roots music with ‘American Epic’ – Los Angeles Times

“American Epic,” a new musical documentary series beginning Tuesday on PBS, comes with some big names attached: much-advertised executive producers Jack White, T Bone Burnett and Robert Redford, who also narrates.

It’s helpful in the documentary world to have celebrity endorsements — writer-director Bernard MacMahon is not a name to reckon with — but they are not the point, and happily they do not get underfoot. The series’ strength lies with less starry legends.

MacMahon’s subject is the moment, in the mid-1920s, when the record business turned its attention to the country’s regional music — poor people’s music mostly, passed from player to player and then from generation to generation. (Some of the inheritors, like Robert Lockwood Jr., who learned from his uncle, Robert Johnson, are onscreen.)

Along with the people who made the music, MacMahon is interested in the figures, representatives of big-city record companies, who traveled the country to find them, set up shop where convenient and recorded them. In doing so, they created a kind of audio bible, an encyclopedia of American vernacular self-expression and, for its audience, self-perception.

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