Film has been one of Americana music’s best friends over the years. Lacking widespread radio support, the music has reached millions on screens large and small in features (O Brother, Bonnie & Clyde) and documentaries. Buena Vista Social Club was an epiphany for me and many others. Bluegrass Country Soul is a time machine to one of the very first trend setting festivals in 1972. The recentMuscle Shoals. The classic Dylan film Don’t Look Back. I could go on all day naming films that have opened up musical worlds and put folk music in context. You could literally Netflix your way to a deep understanding of roots culture.
This week our show closing band will tell us about their involvement with an exciting new film from PBS and the BBC coming this Spring called American Epic, a three-part television event produced by Jack White, Robert Redford and T-Bone Burnett. It’s a study of the inevitable, fateful collision between folk music and electricity – when records and radio became real. And our show closing band The Americans figures heavily in the project, performing and backing up some major stars as the film stages recording sessions on a restored antique electric disc cutting lathe of the 1930s.
“It’s about a revelation,” says Americans founder Patrick Ferris. “Everything changed the moment everyday people got a chance to hear each other and hear popular music. It was night and day. The director called it ‘The first time America heard itself.’”
This is an issue Ferris and his band mates have thought a lot about. They were renegade fans and practitioners of old-time music, pre-War blues and other early American sounds amid the hubbub of modern day Los Angeles. They’ve not only played a lot of shows, they’ve worked on a distinguished set of film projects with the likes of Michael Mann and Johnny Depp. T-Bone says they are “genius twenty-first century musicians that are reinventing American heritage music for this century.” And Ferris says as they grew and released some EPs, they evolved on a natural arc toward a more electrified, modern day sound that feels both juke jointy and urbane.
The Americans are also pals and sometime collaborators with the Secret Sisters, another T-Bone produced group that makes one of the most particular and lovely sounds in today’s roots music scene. The velvety voices and close, complex harmonies of Laura and Lydia Rogers can make you forget to breathe. Their songs have the timeless mastery and mystery of the Louvin Brothers, but sexier and somehow more mystical. We’ve been hoping to land this highly respected duo for a long time, and when they play Roots they will join and be joined by The Americans in a second half pair of sets we are sure will be very special.
The front half will take care of itself with a return by the striking, world-traveling Della Mae. I profiled this award-winning quintet in detail when they played in October of 2012 and while the core of their personnel and skillsets haven’t changed, they’ve certainly grown both by releasing their second album, a self-titled project that pushes bluegrass into new territory, and by traveling extensively in distant lands as ambassadors of the US State Department on musical diplomacy tours. They’re kind of secret agents of roots music, spreading songs, hot licks and joy. My most recent chance to see them was at the L.A. Bluegrass Situation where the ladies projected to thousands of people in the Greek Theater, and it sounded so soulful and warm and meticulously put together that I’ll never forget it.
We open this Americana epic with a new side project by an MCR alum. JP Harris is like Dale Watson for a new generation, a thunder-voiced hard country singer and guitar slinger with an uncompromising musical defiance of heartbreak and blues. Of late, he’s teamed up with Chance McCoy, a member of Old Crow Medicine Show, to play old-time fiddle and banjo repertoire from what Greil Marcus called the old, weird America. So the show will open with what The Americans started out doing and evolve through some of the manifestations of that original Americana sound – bluegrass, mountain harmonies and electric organic rock and roll. It’ll be epic dude.