Here's an exercise in how most every opinion can be validated by someone online: Type the sentence "music is timeless," with quotes, into the search window of Google, press Enter and marvel at the nearly 400,000 results. Lots of folks agree that great, good and plain-old music are all timeless. Last year, guitarist Ted Nugent was more specific in an interview with The Arizona Republic. "Killer music," he declared, "is timeless."
The query also suggests that fans of certain genres believe that their music of choice is the form fated for eternity—soul, gospel, house, classical and traditional Zimbabwean, not to mention bands like The Beatles or Parliament. In 2009, the Mississippi-born sideman and bandleader Marty Stuart went so far as to compare his role in country music to that of the stewards who keep the Vatican meticulous and everlasting. "It's part of America's culture and history. It defines who we are, who we were and who we'll be," he said. "Country music is timeless."
In the last several years, though, it's been difficult to shrug the feeling that music sports a continually shorter expiration date, due in large part to technology-induced clipped attention spans, constantly overfeeding on new content. At their worst, music blogs serve as heard-it-first automatons, mouthpieces that are big on expected pronouncements but short on context or history. We the listeners sometimes seem only to scan through it all, afraid real enjoyment of one truly great piece of music will shortchange a hard drive full of files waiting to be tagged with an iTunes rating.
The culture of listening to music has in part become an endless rat race in which excitement for a newly leaked album you might like trumps deep-seated joy for something you're already loving. Just two weeks ago, for instance, I had to laugh as one music critic publicly chastised another (via that outlet for all our impertinence and impatience, Twitter) for delivering an allegedly tardy review of an album that had been released almost four weeks prior. But maybe this shortened personal attention span is the start of a trade-off for a broadened cultural awareness, a point best made by recent trends with musical reissues and archives.
In a recent editorial for The New York Times, essayist Tim Kreider laments that, in this hyperlinked era, the web of information at our disposal has obliterated the thrills of not knowing an answer, of wondering about the truth. "Instant accessibility leaves us oddly disappointed, bored, endlessly craving more," Kreider writes. "I hope kids are still finding some way, despite Google and Wikipedia, of not knowing things."
Our breakneck listening habits seem to stem from a need to know, driven by a generation of consumers with instant access to almost everything. In that framework, obscurity doesn't create intrigue; it engenders annoyance.
Kreider's "endlessly craving more" point is essential. This model isn't entirely without payoff because, at best, it can create the urge to discover everything, or at least to hear more. And in the last several years, a combination of technology and shifting attitudes among record labels and musicians has helped meet that need by providing access not only to new music but also to very old and almost lost music. In May, for instance, the Library of Congress unveiled its National Jukebox, a trove of files that includes "more than 10,000 78 rpm disc sides issued by the Victor Talking Machine Company between 1900 and 1925."
What's more, Pitchfork Media, one of the most influential music websites in the world, regularly reviews compilations of nearly lost tunes—old African field recordings, old American box sets, forgotten rock LPs—alongside the trendiest offerings in indie rock. The perception of that central binary of old versus new is weakening: The existence of the song matters less than the origin of that song.
This week, Bill Callahan, long known as the songwriter Smog, will again headline Local 506 in Chapel Hill. He's touring in support of Apocalypse, one of the best collections of his career and, really, of anyone this year. The show will likely sell out, so Callahan's opening slot is certainly a coveted one, prime for some young indie band trying to make an impression.
But Ed Askew, who will open, made his first album for the experimental ESP label in 1968. Not long afterward, Askew mostly disappeared from music, though he would write and record sporadically during the decades that followed. By 1984, he cobbled together a nine-song cassette called Imperfiction. Askew mostly wallowed in obscurity, until a series of small reissues revived his reputation to the point where Drag City rereleased Imperfiction in March. A month later, Drag City released Callahan's Apocalypse. Though they're touring behind albums made more than 25 years apart, Askew and Callahan are touring together.
Especially in the last several years, Drag City has become one of several labels to treat old music—old not in the way of Palestrina, but ancient in the way that thousands of blogs now pump out songs of the week, day and hour—like its original manufacturing date is immaterial. In May, for instance, the label reissued a sterling set of four albums by Mickey Newbury, the great country songwriter who authored tunes for Roberta Flack, Buffy Saint-Marie and Willie Nelson. (The title of the complete set, An American Trilogy, is lifted from a Newbury arrangement of three American classics, later popularized by Elvis.) Full of acoustic guitars, static hiss and sad songs, those Newbury albums are gut-level relics, little fragments of salvaged Americana made in a time before that term came into use. That same month, the label issued the new album by Bachelorette, the discomfiting, bleeding-edge electronic pop project of New Zealand singer Annabel Alpers.
Drag City isn't alone in this process of mixing times and sounds. Thrill Jockey Records recently followed albums by form-pushers like The Sea and Cake, Liturgy and Pontiak with a set of decades-old recordings by Malian musician Sorry Bamba. And while Mississippi label Fat Possum has lately been oozing albums by buzz bands like Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Yuck, its legacy is rooted in some of the most primitive American bluesmen ever.
No label does this better than the New York-based imprint Tompkins Square. It reissues vintage recordings like I'm Going Down to North Carolina, a set of recordings from the Depression-era string band The Red Fox Chasers. The label has started a new series called Long Gone Sounds, "dedicated to under-anthologized yet highly influential artists." Tompkins Square also releases new music, like boundary-breaking instrumental guitar records by Nashville's William Tyler and England's James Blackshaw.
But it has taken several surprising and essential steps to further blur the line between old and new, too. For the last seven years, a running four-disc series called Imaginational Anthem mixed the aged icons of instrumental guitar—Fahey, Basho, Bull—with the leaders of that form's recent renaissance, without temporal distinction. Similarly, the 2009 three-disc set Fire in My Bones collected primitive gospel recordings made between 1944 and 2007 and moved between those eras with more concern for cohesion than chronology.
In the past several years, Tompkins Square has also released wonderful new collections by old American treasures, like Charlie Louvin's self-titled 2007 album. And nearly 50 years after musicologist Alan Lomax visited the south Virginia porch of singer Spencer Moore, Tompkins Square owner Josh Rosenthal returned to the same location to record the 88-year-old Moore again. It doesn't sound that different from either of the two albums Tompkins Square has issued by Frank Fairfield, a 25-year-old California banjo and fiddle player. Nominally, Fairfield makes old-time music, but he tours with young rock bands like Fleet Foxes and Cass McCombs. The kids, I'm told, love it.
These reissues, new issues and albums that feel a little like both and neither now share space—in the press, in record label catalogs, in playlists, in hard drives. That movement seems as if it could at least somewhat counterbalance the give-me-more, what's-next bent of technology. The music industry will always be about fresh product because that drives customer interest and potential sales. But if those new products continue to integrate a substantially antediluvian, obscure component, the threshold of what is now and what is then have to begin to bend against and into one another. Suddenly, cool and hip become less about what's current and trending than substance and meaning.
"In the past, you would of course know what's going on contemporaneously, but it was a bit of a job to find something from 1962 or 1947," Brian Eno told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month. "But now it's all there, it's all equally present, equally current ... They don't so much think now of certain styles being unacceptably old fashioned, and certain other styles being wonderfully, interestingly new. You make your own patchwork quilt."
Now that's an idea that could actually be timeless.