Local banjo player has worked with the best

By Austen Thibault, The Union Democrat October 31, 2013 11:30 am

Brent Pierce, of Sonora, plays his banjo in the backyard of his Sonora home. Maggie Beck / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
Sonora’s Brent Pierce is perhaps best known for his banjo playing in the Sierra Mountain Band — a group that performs at the summer “Western throwback” barbecues at Hurst Ranch in Jamestown.

But Pierce actually plays multiple instruments, including guitar and Dobro, and he enjoyed a music career beyond the confines of the county and state.

His history in the music industry may be surprising for a member of an all-acoustic band that plays decades-old songs with no electronics besides microphones and the system they go through.

He was “engineer-in-chief” for Harrah’s hotel and casino in Reno, which was famous for its “Star Policy” of bringing in and pampering stars. 

He was in charge of all the sound for live performances by Kenny Rogers, Patti Page, the Oak Ridge Boys, Smothers Brothers, Kool and the Gang, and Ray Charles, among others. 

Pierce laughed as he remembered sweating bullets working the sound for Ray Charles during his first year at Harrah’s. 

“Ray was so old school,” he said. 

He didn’t want monitors — the speakers that play back to the performers — on stage, but wanted to hear himself. And he didn’t do sound checks. 

Charles didn’t have a traveling sound man, so Pierce was entirely responsible for his amplified sound as it played to a crowd of about 9,000 people. The plaza at Harrah’s was located at the side of a street and they would shut the street down for big performers like Charles. 

Nervous already, Pierce was approached by Charles’ manager and told, “Ray will play about 30 seconds and if he doesn’t like it, he’ll stop and tell you to fix it.” 

After 30 seconds, the manager saw Charles doing his signature swaying left and right as he played and said, “You’ll be all right,” and walked away. 

When Charles had first played at Harrah’s, a Southern Pacific train went by and it bothered him, Pierce said. He was told they are on a strict schedule, but the next year the president of Southern Pacific stopped trains for Charles’ performance. They gave him a complimentary VIP ticket.

Pierce was barely allowed to mic anything for Charles’ and his 22-piece band’s performance, but “it was one of the best sounding shows I’ve done,” he said.

The raw sound matches Pierce’s own music style. 

He grew up listening to Earl Scruggs and got his first banjo at age 6, after harassing his father in Aptos, where he grew up. He actually begged for a guitar, but didn’t know the difference at the time, he joked. 

He took lessons for a few months to learn to read tablature — a simpler version of written music — then just played along with records, Pierce said.

“I’d listen over and over,” he said.

In his early teens, music placed second to football, but he returned to music and got serious about it with a band including his brother and high school friends. 

Getting married and having a child derailed the band momentum. He returned to school and got a degree in 1993 from the College of Recording Arts in San Francisco. This, he said, enabled him to make a stable living with music. 

He moved to Tuolumne County to be with family and continued to work in the music industry at Jackson Rancheria and Black Oak Casino.

The nightlife kept him from his kids, so he now works as lead sales representative at Golden State Cellular in Angels Camp.

Pierce, 47, is married and has four children. When not working or gigging, he likes to watch sports, including “living vicariously through his son,” who attends Aptos High School for an esteemed football program. 

Sierra Mountain Band will next perform at the Rim Fire Ranchers Relief at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds on Nov. 23. The event, organized by Country Cowboy Church, is a fundraiser for ranchers who lost livestock, feed or buildings to the Rim Fire this summer. Tickets can be purchased at www.countrycowboychurch.com.