Rising to the challenge of the blues

Mt. Lebanon High School senior Pierce Dipner released his first CD in January. He is competing in Memphis this month after winning the Blues Society of Western Pennsylvania’s Blues Challenge last September.

ierce Dipner and his band, the Shades of Blue, will represent western Pennsylvania at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, May 6-11. Dipner, an 18-year-old senior at Mt. Lebanon High School, won the Blues Society of Western Pennsylvania’s 2021 Blues Challenge last September and was named the 2021 Best Guitarist as well. In Memphis, he and his band will be competing against more than 100 other bands from around the world.

Dipner, Jefferson Drive, began playing blues at the age of 12. He had been playing music from a very young age, picking up guitar, harmonica, drums, and bass, augmented with some lessons at Empire Music and time at music camps. “Honestly, I was looking for other places to play and got into a jam hosted by the Blues Society of Western Pennsylvania. And I just fell in love with the blues.”

What drew him so strongly? “I think on the outside it’s a very accessible, simple genre of music to get into and play, to express your emotions,” he said. “The more you get into it, you find there’s room for improvisation and slight deviations, so you can kind of make it whatever you want to make it.”

Surprisingly, Dipner has also been playing the cello since third grade. He was a member of the Pittsburgh Youth Philharmonic for two years and even toured Europe with the group. He currently plays with the high school orchestra. “Classical music is my second-favorite genre,” he admits. “It’s so cool how the cello can be at the forefront or part of a group of 60 to 100 instruments that everything builds off of.”

Dipner cites his parents as big influences on his love of music. “They’ve always listened to a lot,” he said. “So I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that had the catalog of music for me to get a good, wide listening experience.”

He also was encouraged by music teachers in the schools. “Mr. Cook, my orchestra teacher in middle school, also plays the bass, so he always asked me what I was doing,” Pierce reports. “And Mr. Reichenfeld, the orchestra teacher, has always been supportive, watching my videos and asking me about my plans.”

Although he’s only 18, Dipner has performed at many major festivals, including the WYEP Summer Music Festival, Pittsburgh Blues and Roots Festival, Tall City Blues Fest in Midland, Texas and the Kitchener Blues Festival in Ontario. He was the 2017 and 2019 youth rep at the International Blues Challenge and has played at Memphis’ Hard Rock Café with many seasoned musicians as well. He and his band perform regularly around the Pittsburgh area and have bookings lined up into the fall. The group hasn’t appeared in Mt. Lebanon, although Dipner did play a holiday show at the high school with a band made up of teachers.

He names as his influences many of the classic blues players, especially Gary Clark Jr., whom he credits with bridging the gap between rock and blues, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Freddie King and Paul Butterfield.

In January Dipner and his band released their first full-length CD, Goin’ Back, available on streaming services and at his website, piercedipner.com. The album initially charted at #5 and #13 on the Blues and Blues Rock charts and as the #1 album in Pennsylvania across all genres. The album features three original songs and seven covers, spanning classic blues to contemporary rock. It was recorded at the Church Recording Studio in Pittsburgh with Dana Cannone, a well-known industry professional. Dipner previously worked with Cannone when he was featured on the WYEP Reimagination Project, whose website describes him as a “blues phenom.”

What’s next for Dipner? College, he hopes, although he’s still not sure where. He may postpone starting until second semester because of all the performances he has booked through the fall.

Ultimately, he’d like to tour more widely with his band and hopes to find an agent. As he prepares to compete at the International Blues Challenge, he sums up his goals succinctly: “I hope to take music as far as I can. It would be great to win in Memphis, but all I can do is play my heart out and hope that people hear and like it.”