There will be no Pro Tools used to doctor these recordings. Each take is inscribed directly onto disk. There will also be a hard stop at just under four minutes. It has been decades (nearly a century) since records were made this way, but producers T Bone Burnett and Jack White revived the practice for their three-part PBS-BBC special, American Epic. They invited some of the biggest names in contemporary Americana music into their retro-studio to record era-appropriate tunes in The American Epic Sessions (promo here), which premieres this Tuesday on PBS.
The Scully recording lathe produced all the hit records of the early 1920s, but there were no original extant systems left in existence. However, intrepid recording engineer Nick Bergh managed to assemble one from vintage parts. It is an awesome spectacle and a rare opportunity for artists like Taj Mahal to record on the same equipment that immortalized their heroes.
The system is pulley-driven, powered by gravity and a hundred-and-five-pound weight. Sound goes in the iconic Western Electric microphone and comes out on the grooves of the master. It requires entirely different studio practices, but it is as authentic as it gets.
As you would hope, many of the artists are inspired by the setting and circumstances, most definitely Taj Mahal, who lays down a passionately raw rendition of Charley Patton’s “High Water Everywhere” that reverberates with recent memories of Katrina and Sandy. Likewise, Beck’s “Fourteen Rivers, Fourteen Floods” required at least thirteen takes, but the primal power of the stripped down final was worth the effort.
Easily the biggest surprise is the contemporary vibe Nas (finally appearing in a good documentary) and White’s house band give to the Memphis Jug Band’s “On the Road Again,” bringing out the gangster rap sensibilities in the 1928 classic. Rhiannon Giddens also connects with all the earthiness of Victoria Spivey’s “One Hour Mama,” circa 1937. These tunes are ninety-years-old or older, yet they would carry parental advisory stickers if they were released new today.
A few artists contributed new simpatico tunes, including Elton John and his longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin. “Two Fingers of Whiskey,” recorded as a duet with White, is still completely in keeping with the spirit of the sessions, incorporating blues licks we never knew John had. He ought to add it to his regular set list, because it is surprisingly cool.
Ashley Monroe and the Americans truly sound like they are channeling 1920 Appalachia during “Jubilee.” The Avett Brothers similarly start a stirring “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” but they do not get a chance to properly finish, because the strap holding the weight breaks. Continuing the inclusiveness of Epic, the sessions also feature very nice performances of Mexican and Hawaiian standards, as well as the Lost Bayou Ramblers keeping it real on “Allons à Lafayete.” Even though Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard are meant to be the big finale, they are almost anti-climactic compared to some of the stuff that came before them.