PBS and BBC Arena are teaming for American Epic, a three-part documentary series and feature-length film that trace an era when the music of ordinary citizens was recorded for the first time across America. Executive produced by T Bone Burnett, Robert Redford and Jack White, it will air in the U.S. and the UK this fall, culminating in a studio session featuring such contemporary and roots-music greats as Beck, Nas, Willie Nelson and Taj Mahal.

Calling the project, “America’s greatest untold story,” Redford says, “It’s an account of the cultural revolution that ultimately united a nation.”

mississippi john hurt american epicAmerican Epic is billed as a journey across time back to the birth of modern music, “when the musical strands of a diverse nation first combined, sparking a cultural renaissance that forever transformed the future of music and the world.” British director Bernard MacMahon and co-creator/producer Allison McGourty pieced together the story that’s set in the late 1920s, when record company talent scouts toured America with a recording machine and captured the raw expression of an emerging culture, giving a voice to the poorest in the nation — and rise to such genres as blues, country, gospel, Hawaiian, Cajun and folk music.

The documentary’s broadcast will culminate with the feature-length The American Epic Sessions, in which White and Burnett lead an all-star cast of contemporary music legends as they record both new and traditional songs on the last existing record lathe from the 1920s. Beck, Nas, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Taj Mahal, Los Lobos, Alabama Shakes, Steve Martin, Edie Brickell and others are due to take part.

In addition to the broadcast, Columbia Records will release contemporary performances from The American Epic Series, and Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings will release a series of archival recordings, featuring audio restoration of 1920s and 1930s recordings by Lo-Max Films, Nick Bergh and Peter Henderson. Third Man Records will release a deluxe box of vinyl records.

American Epic is produced by Lo-Max Films, BBC Arena, Wildwood Enterprises and Thirteen Productions for WNET. PBS International is handling international distribution.