Bakersfield Musician and Wife Found Dead in California City

Authorities said the bodies of a well-known Bakersfield singer and his wife were recently discovered on a desert road east of California City.

After receiving a call about two bodies on August 21 in Kern County, sheriff’s deputies located 88-year-old steel guitarist Larry Petree in the driver’s seat of his automobile and Betty resting against the rear tire. There were no indicators of wrongdoing.

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The county coroner will need a few more days to identify the cause of death, the sheriff’s office stated on Sunday. Norm Hamlet, Petree’s 87-year-old friend and the steel guitar musician who backed up Merle Haggard for 49 years on The Strangers, stated, “It will probably always be a mystery how they wound up in the desert.”

As a duo, he and Petree contributed to the development of the Bakersfield sound, a kind of country music that originated in the Central Valley’s saloons, honky tonks, oil fields, and ranches. It was California’s boisterous, pulsating answer to Nashville’s smoother, more organized sound of the day. It validated the notion that country music could flourish outside of Nashville’s normative confines, with artists finding success by playing shows in Bakersfield, making records in Los Angeles, and carving out unique niches for themselves elsewhere.

The nasal, wail-like pedal steel guitar was a signature sound of the genre. During its heyday in the early 1960s, the new sound took the globe by storm with Haggard and Buck Owens at the helm.

On July 30 at the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame, Larry Petree (second from left) performed with The Soda Crackers.
Petree, a Dust Bowl child born in Paden, Oklahoma in 1933, relocated to Bakersfield with his family at a young age. He attended Bakersfield High, enlisted in the Army, and spent more than three decades working as a mechanic for the Kern County Fire Department.

Tommy Hays, the 92-year-old leader of a western swing band, once said of him, “He could rebuild an engine and not get his hands dirty.” The same might be said of his musical tastes. Meticulous.”

Petree’s house was usually spotless, so when Hamlet returned from visiting Haggard, he went there.

Since we were in high school, whenever he learnt something new, he would show it to me, and vice versa, Hamlet remarked.

He claimed that Petree could hold his own with any touring artist, but that he was a symbol for the musicians who put in long hours in the office or in their hometowns and still manage to make music their life.

“He had Betty and her steady work and he loved it, but until recently he was still performing six nights a week,” Hamlet explained. People used to want to go out and dance all the time, but that has changed now that everyone can stay at home and watch Netflix.

Betty was not the type of wife to accompany her husband to every single concert he ever played in. As a painter, she followed her own muse. According to her friend Kim Hays, the two were inseparable.

They’ve been married for 60 years. Larry and Betty were inseparable; it was always the two of them. Hays, who believes the couple took a wrong turn and couldn’t phone for help since Petree recently warned him he would run away, remarked, “The circumstances of their deaths are odd, but at least there is solace that one was not left behind.”

A 62-year-old guitarist named Ernie Lewis, who frequently performed with Petree, praised the steel guitar player for his reliability.

As a result of his dedication to the team, he won the hearts of his colleagues. Lewis remarked that people like that don’t behave arrogant. “But here’s the thing: Larry really was that.”

To raise money for the Bakersfield Country Music Museum, Petree and the Soda Crackers played a sold-out show in July.

Zane Adamo, 29, a singer, claimed that he said good night to Petree and that he hoped he enjoyed the event.

As in, “Well, you know why they call it playing?” commented Petree. Because you don’t have to toil in the sky. You seem to be enjoying yourselves.