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There's old-school, and then there's old-school. As a TV special to conclude the PBS documentary series American Epic — which tells the story of the music immortalized by a 1920s-era recording studio — The American Epic Sessions compels contemporary musicians to use a re-creation of that studio in an effort to duplicate the classic performances' immediacy and intensity.
For the Sessions special (airing June 6), producers T Bone Burnett and Jack White gather performances by a remarkable assortment of musicians — including Beck, Bettye LaVette, Nas, Elton John, The Avett Brothers, Los Lobos, Rhiannon Giddens, Willie Nelson and the late Merle Haggard, among many others. Watching Alabama Shakes' members tear into this brief but potent cover of "Killer Diller" (popularized by Memphis Minnie in the 1940s), you get insights into the magic of the equipment and studio, the timelessness of the song, and Alabama Shakes' own genre-and era-busting charisma.
It's a cool project, and it's one of many tied to the American Epic series, the first installment of which aired Tuesday. In addition to the documentary and the Sessions special, there's a five-disc, 100-song box set (American Epic: The Collection) full of sonically restored original recordings from the '20s and '30s; a 15-song distillation titled American Epic: The Soundtrack; a companion album to the Sessions special; an assortment of genre- and artist-specific spinoff compilations under the American Epic name; lots of vinyl editions released via Jack White's Third Man label; and a companion book titled, you guessed it, American Epic.
The American Epic Sessions airs June 6 on PBS. Its soundtrack comes out June 9 via Columbia.