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Keeping Time: New Music From America’s Roots

Docu series on American roots music opens with the rarely discussed Sunday-morning influence on the Saturday-night art form of music-making. Filmmakers Gillian Grisman and Alicia Sams start the series in a curious yet absorbing spot, exposing the effect of hymns and gospel music on artists such as Gillian Welch and Robert Randolph.

Four-part docu series on American roots music opens with the rarely discussed Sunday-morning influence on the Saturday-night art form of music-making. Filmmakers Gillian Grisman (“Grateful Dawg”) and Alicia Sams (“Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s”) start the “Keeping Time” series in a curious yet absorbing spot, exposing the effect of hymns and gospel music on artists such as folkie Gillian Welch and steel guitarist Robert Randolph.

All four episodes are equally focused — young bluegrass outfit Nickel Creek is chronicled Aug. 14; heads of indie labels (Bloodshot, Fat Possum, Alligator, etc.) tell their stories Aug. 21; and songwriters, especially the Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players, speak their minds Aug. 28. In many ways it’s a news report from the indie music front, a “60 Minutes”-like compendium of compelling stories that in two years would be worthy of a revisit. Grisman and Sams, who alternate director and producer roles, supply the right notes for viewers attracted to Sundance’s indie fare.

Series opener, “Picking My Religion,” heads to Nashville, Brooklyn, Ohio and East Orange, N.J. Welch, a young Southern Californian who sings as if she’d been raised in Appalachia, displays a passion for old hymnals and shares how she employs ancient lyrical styles to create her wholly modern take on folk music. Andy Statman, a clarinetist, brings a free-jazz approach to Hassidic melodies and thought; a Native American tribe educates visitors to the powers of their percussion-and-voice songs.

It’s Randolph, though, who is going the farthest afield, with a musical style termed sacred steel that was a little-known subgenre within gospel music until a decade ago. Randolph plays in a Jersey church, where we hear his music at its purest, and then at a festival, where he is among the acts building a following in the jam-band movement. Randolph is the only musician in the series with a major label deal; he’s with Warner Bros.

Technically, all four parts are topnotch across the board.

Keeping Time: New Music From America’s Roots

Docu; Sundance Channel, Thurs. Aug. 7, 7:30 p.m.

  • Production: Filmed in various locations by 11th Hour Prods. Executive producer, Adam Pincus; producer, Alicia Sams; supervising producer, John Bedolis; director, Gillian Grisman;
  • Crew: camera, Nelson Hume, Scott McIntire, Amy Rice, Scott Ranson, Ken Bailey, Matt Testa; editors, Josh Baron, Eric Horowitz. 30 MIN.
  • Cast:
  • Music By: