A longtime Bakersfield musician and his wife were recently found dead, stranded on a dirt road in a remote stretch of desert east of California City, authorities said.
Kern County sheriff’s deputies, who had received a report of two bodies, found 88-year-old steel guitarist Larry Petree in the driver’s seat of his car and Betty leaning against the rear tire on August 21. There was no sign of foul play.
The sheriff’s department said Sunday it will take a few more days before the county coroner can determine the cause of death.
“It will probably always be a mystery how they ended up in the desert,” said Petree’s friend Norm Hamlet, 87, a steel guitar player who supported Merle Haggard for 49 years on The Strangers. .
He and Petree helped create the Bakersfield sound, a genre of country music that grew out of the bars and honky-tonks, oil fields and farms of the Central Valley. It was California’s raucous, driving response to the softer, orchestrated music coming out of Nashville at the time. It proved that country musicians could perform in Bakersfield, record records in Los Angeles, and carve out successful careers away from the Nashville establishment.
One of the telltale markers of the style was the wailing, nasal pedal steel guitar. With Haggard and Buck Owens in the lead, the new sound toured the world at its peak in the early 60s.
Born in Paden, Okla. in 1933, Petree moved to Bakersfield at an early age – a Dust Bowl kid. He graduated from Bakersfield High School, served a tour of duty in the United States Army, and worked with the Kern County Fire Department as a mechanic for over 30 years.
“He could overhaul an engine and not get his hands dirty,” said Tommy Hays, 92, leader of a western swing band. “He was the same way about his music. Meticulous.”
When Hamlet came home from visits from Haggard, he visited Petree at his home, where everything was always clean as a pin.
“Ever since high school we would get together and if he learned something new he would show me, and if I learned something I would show him,” Hamlet said.
He said Petree was as good as any musician on the road, but he represented those who work, stay close to home, and always find a way to make music their life.
“He had Betty and her steady job and he loved it, but until recently he was still playing six nights a week,” Hamlet said. “People are staying home now with the internet, but not long ago people still wanted to go out and dance.”
Betty was not one of the wives who followed her husband to every show. She was a painter with her own interests. But they were inseparable, said her friend Kim Hays.
“They were together for 60 years. It was always Larry and Betty, Betty and Larry. The circumstances of their deaths are bizarre, but at least there is comfort that one was not left behind,” said Hays, who suspects the couple took a wrong turn and couldn’t call for help because Petree recently told her he’d run away minutes on his phone.
Ernie Lewis, 62, a musician who often played with Petree, said the steel guitar player was sought after because he was unwavering.
“Everyone loved him because he was a team player. People like that don’t act like they’re all that,” Lewis said. “But the thing is, Larry was all that.”
In July, Petree performed a sold-out benefit concert for the Bakersfield Country Music Museum with the Soda Crackers.
Singer Zane Adamo, 29, said after the show he wished Petree good night and told him he had a great time.
“Well, you know why they call it playing?” said Petree. “Because you don’t work when you’re up there. You’re having fun.”