Carter Family’s Music Alive and Well in Willie Nelson

Historic Recordings Are Revisited in American Epic on PBS

A song’s enduring popularity is hard to predict, but Willie Nelson still routinely performs “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” in concert almost a century after A.P. Carter wrote it.

Nelson’s love of the Carter Family is a key element in American Epic, a three-part historical documentary premiering Tuesday (May 16) on PBS.

“I grew up hearing all their songs. I was a huge fan of theirs all my life,” Nelson says in the first episode, titled “The Big Bang,” which tells the story of the Carter Family — A.P. and Sara Carter along with Sara’s cousin, Maybelle.

Noting that the original trio essentially helped form the foundation of country music, Nelson adds, “I think once you hear the original Carter Family, you don’t have to explain why they were special.”

T Bone Burnett, Jack White and Robert Redford are the executive producers of American Epic, described as “a journey to the birth of modern music.” The film follows the recording machine’s trail across the United States in the 1920s in search of unknown artists who transformed American music.

Legacy Recordings last week released American Epic: The Collection, a five-CD boxed set featuring 100 historic recordings by country pioneers such as the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, along with blues and regional music by Mississippi John Hurt, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Joseph Falcon, the Memphis Jug Band, Lydia Mendoza and many others. American Epic: The Soundtrack, a single-disc compilation containing 15 songs, is also available.

Additionally, a concert film titled American Epic Sessions will air June 6 on PBS. It will be accompanied by the release of American Epic: The Sessions, a collection of new recordings produced by White and Burnett after an engineering team reassembled the very first electrical sound recording system from the 1920s.

Recorded with a single microphone to a record-cutting lathe powered by a weight-driven pulley system of clockwork gears, the innovative project includes performances by Alabama Shakes, Ashley Monroe, the Avett Brothers, Beck, Bettye LaVette, Elton John, Los Lobos, Taj Mahal, Pokey LaFarge and Rhiannon Giddens, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, and Nelson and Merle Haggard.

White’s Third Man Records will release a triple-LP version of American Epic: The Sessions on June 16 and is also issuing audiophile vinyl collections from the documentary.