Longtime Bakersfield musician and wife found dead in desert east of California City

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 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 would be several days before the county coroner could determine the cause of death.

“How they ended up in the desert will probably always remain a mystery,” said Petree’s friend Norm Hamlet, 87, a steel guitarist who spent 49 years accompanying Merle Haggard on The Strangers.

He and Petree helped create the Bakersfield sound, a genre of country music born out of the bars and honky-tonks, oil fields and farms of the Central Valley. It was California’s gritty, boisterous response to the softer, orchestrated music then coming out of Nashville. It proved that country musicians could play in Bakersfield, set records in LA, and have successful careers far from the Nashville establishment.

One of the telltale traits of the style was the twangy, weeping pedal steel guitar. With Haggard and Buck Owens at the helm, the new sound swept the globe during its heyday in the early ’60s.

A band plays on a stage

Larry Petree, second from left, performs with The Soda Crackers at the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame July 30 in Bakersfield.

(Felix Adamo)

Born in Paden, Oklahoma in 1933, Petree moved to Bakersfield at a young age—a child of the Dust Bowl. He graduated from Bakersfield High School, completed a stint in the US Army and worked as a mechanic with the Kern County Fire Department for more than 30 years.

“He could overhaul an engine without getting his hands dirty,” said Tommy Hays, 92, a western swing bandleader. “He was like that in his music. Carefully.”

When Hamlet returned home from Haggard tours, he would visit Petree’s home, where everything was always sparkling clean.

“Since high school we got together and when he learned something new he showed it to me and when I learned something I showed it to him,” Hamlet said.

He said Petree is as good as any musician on the street, but he represents those who have jobs, stay close to home, and still find a way to make music their life.

“He had Betty and his steady job and he liked it that way, but until recently he was still playing six nights a week,” Hamlet said. “People are staying at home with the internet now, but recently people still wanted to get out and dance.”

Betty wasn’t one of those wives who followed her husband to every show. She was a painter with interests of her own. But they are inseparable, said friend Kim Hays.

“We’ve been together for 60 years. It was always Larry and Betty, Betty and Larry. The circumstances of her death are bizarre, but at least there is the consolation that none were left behind,” said Hays, who suspects the couple took a wrong turn and were unable to call for help because Petree recently told her he had run off minutes on his phone.

Ernie Lewis, 62, a musician who often played with Petree, said the steel guitarist was wanted because he was steadfast.

“Everyone liked him because he was a team player. People like the ones who don’t act like they’re all that,” Lewis said. “But the thing is, Larry was all of that.”

In July, Petree played a sold-out benefit concert for the Bakersfield Country Music Museum with the Soda Crackers.

Frontman Zane Adamo, 29, said he wished Petree good night after the show and told him he had a great time.

“Well, do you know why they call it playing?” said Petree. “Because you don’t work when you’re up there. You have fun.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-08-28/longtime-bakersfield-musician-and-his-wife-found-dead-on-a-remote-stretch-of-desert-east-of-california-city Longtime Bakersfield musician and wife found dead in desert east of California City

Alley Einstein

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