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Pittsburgh writers, musicians get no respect ' locally

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By Rege Behe
Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011
 

Rodney Dangerfield made a career of his "no respect" schtick.

But for too many writers and musicians from Pittsburgh, a lack of appreciation is all too palpable. Instead of their work being judged on merit, there's always a pro forma tag applied:

The singer who lives across the street ...

The Pittsburgh writer ...

That band from (fill in the neighborhood) ...

"A lot of times you'll hear 'they're a local country group,' so they want to get somebody else," says Dave August, the lead singer for North of Mason-Dixon, about the difficulty of getting bookings in the region even as the band finds success out of state. "I hesitate to use these words, but it's kind of like a lack of respect, to some degree. A lot of the time, they've never even heard us before. They're just basing it on the idea that we're from here."

Being from Pittsburgh sometimes implies an artist is diminished, just because they are not from New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. The bias is underscored again and again, in ways subtle and large. Judith Vollmer, a poet from Regent Square who is a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, recently had a poem published on www.poets.org , the website for the Academy of American Poets. She received countless congratulatory e-mails. But if the poem was on a local site, such as www.squirrelhillpoets.org , Vollmer thinks the response would have been muted, or perhaps nonexistent.

"I've been called a Pittsburgh writer most of my life because I'm a native daughter," says Vollmer, who was born in Level Green, Westmoreland County. "It's a tag that's been supportive to me in some way, but it's also been very confining. I don't have the same experience when I travel."

Call it a fascination with the exotic, the new, the foreign. And, perhaps, an occlusion of what is close at hand.

Maggie Johnson, a visiting professor and director of community outreach for the Sports, Arts and Entertainment Management program at Point Park University, moved to Pittsburgh after stops in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Working initially for the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, she became aware of many fantastic artists in the area.

She also found that many of these performers were anonymous in their hometown.

"A discussion that was common was the fact we really have some truly world-renown arts and cultural assets here in Pittsburgh that are sometimes not appreciated as much by the people who live here," says Johnson, who is also a jazz singer. "But I do think it's changing. In the nine years I've lived here, there has been more of an awareness bubbling up."

Setting the bar high

Rich Engler has been a part of Pittsburgh's music scene for four decades, first as a musician, then as a promoter. When he started in the 1960s, he saw an inherent pride in Pittsburgh's institutions, its performers and talents. There was no inferiority complex, Engler insists, and the acts that were successful -- notably the Jaggerz, George Benson and Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners -- were feted.

But he acknowledges the hurdle for local talent was always set high.

"I know this myself, having a band, it was very hard to get any airplay at all," Engler says. "Local DJs did not really believe in local talent. They were pushed to play product from Nashville acts, wherever, but not Pittsburgh acts."

Talent, Engler says, almost always wins out. He points to two performers who initially had trouble escaping their hometown roots.

"Bruce Springsteen came out of Asbury Park and Bob Seger out of Detroit, but nobody knew who these acts were either," he says. "They just built a phenomenal fan base in their hometowns, there was such a great buzz about them. ... They had to make it. They finally made it, and everybody recognized them as great. But for some reason, it hasn't happened to anyone from Pittsburgh."

Of all the bands that came closest to becoming a full-fledged national act, most people tout Joe Grushecky and the Iron City Houserockers as the act that deserved more acclaim. Engler points to collaborations with Springsteen as evidence of his Grushecky's talents. But Grushecky readily acknowledges what matters most: Pittsburgh is, first and foremost, a sports town. The Dormont-based musician accepts that the arts are always going to finish second behind the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates.

"I can't really complain about it, but would I have liked to have been more popular• Hell, yeah," Grushecky says. "In some ways, we're the guys from down the street that play in a rock band. But Art (bassist Nardini) and I are very, very aware of our accomplishments. We've had two records produced by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, Bruce and Steve Cropper. And just Bruce coming in to play with us speaks for itself. We know we have enough talent to play with anybody."

Regional's not a good word

Jane Bernstein moved to Pittsburgh from New York 20 years ago to teach writing at Carnegie Mellon University. Before she arrived in Western Pennsylvania she was "just a writer."

Not long after she settled here, she was tagged as a Pittsburgh writer, much to her chagrin.

"I'm not from Pittsburgh, so I don't fit into that world," Bernstein says. "It's not like Kathy George or K.C. Constantine or somebody writing about the city. It was as if suddenly I went from being just a writer to regional, and regional in a derogatory sort of way. I thought that was strange, this conception that New York is the center of the universe and anybody producing stuff someplace else is regional."

Johnson thinks that Pittsburgh's legacy as a working-class town might be part of the reason people tend to wait before embracing its artists.

"I do think there's a sense that, in Pittsburgh, you come from a legacy of being entrepreneurial and hard-working," Johnson says. "There's a pull-up-your-bootstraps mentality in Pittsburgh. You have to prove your mettle here before they take you seriously."

That seems to be proven out by those who get acclaim. Historian and best-selling author David McCullough, who grew up in Point Breeze, certainly is revered in his hometown. Writer Michael Chabon, who is not a native but studied at the University of Pittsburgh, is given his due, especially since he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001. Musicians Christina Aguilera, Girl Talk and Wiz Khalifa, all with Pittsburgh roots, are embraced because they are national touring acts and no longer just local artists.

There's also a sense the world is becoming a smaller place, that the Internet has leveled the playing field for writers. New York, Chicago and Los Angeles will always be important cultural centers, but no longer must an artist travel to these cities to be viable.

Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the film and stage director who has just published his memoir "Luck and Circumstance: A Coming of Age Story in Hollywood, New York and Points Beyond," believes that it's folly to dismiss any artist or writer just because of geography.

"So often in the book world we talk about New York being the center of things," Lindsay-Hogg says. "But I believe in Pittsburgh. I believe in Boston, Houston and other places. New York is not the center of things anymore. It doesn't matter where you live."

 

 
 


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