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. …