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

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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 about two bodies, found 88-year-old steel guitar player Larry Petree in the driver’s seat of his car and Betty leaning against the rear tire on Aug. 21. There were no signs of foul play.

The Sheriff's Department said Sunday that it will be a few more days before the county coroner can determine the causes of death.

“It will probably always be a mystery how they wound up out in the desert,” said Petree's friend Norm Hamlet, 87, a steel guitar player who backed Merle Haggard for 49 years in The Strangers.

He and Petree helped create the Bakersfield sound, a genre of country music that rose out of the bars and honky-tonks, oil fields and farms of the Central Valley. It was California’s raucous, rollicking answer to the smoother, orchestrated music coming out of Nashville at the time. It proved that country musicians could play in Bakersfield, cut records in L.A. and forge successful careers far from the Nashville establishment.

One of the style’s telltale markers was the twangy, weeping pedal steel guitar. With Haggard and Buck Owens leading the way, the new sound circled the globe during its heyday in the early ’60s.

Born in Paden, Okla. in 1933, Petree moved to Bakersfield at an early age — a child of the Dust Bowl. He graduated from Bakersfield High School, completed a tour of duty in the U.S. Army and worked at Kern County Fire Department as a mechanic for more than 30 years.

“He could overhaul an engine and not get his hands dirty,” said Tommy Hays, 92, a Western swing band leader. “He was the same way about his music. Meticulous.”

When Hamlet was home from Haggard tours, he’d visit Petree at his home, where everything was always neat as a pin.

“Since high school we’d get together and if he’d learned some new thing, he’d show me, and if I had learned something, I’d show him,” Hamlet said.

He said Petree was as good as any musician on the road, but he represented those who work 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 stay home now with the internet, but just a bit ago people still wanted to get out and dance.”

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

“They were together 60 years. It was always Larry and Betty, Betty and Larry. The circumstances of their deaths are bizarre, but at least there’s the comfort that one wasn’t left behind,” said Hays, who suspects the couple made a wrong turn and couldn’t phone for help because Petree recently told her he’d run out of minutes on his phone.

Ernie Lewis, 62, a musician who often played with Petree, said the steel guitar player was sought out because he was steadfast.

“Everybody 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 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 that after the show, he wished Petree a goodnight and told him he’d had a great time.

“Well, you know why they call it playing?” Petree said. “Because you’re not working when you’re up there. You’re having fun.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.