In a sad and bizarre story, the country music community in Bakersfield, California is mourning the tragic loss of a local steel guitar player and career firefighter after both he and his wife were found dead on a remote dirt road in the Mojave Desert. Though authorities do not believe foul play was involved, just how the couple ended up so far away from their home and in the middle of the desert currently remains a mystery.
88-year-old Larry Petree and his wife Betty of 60 years were found Sunday, August 21st on a deserted dirt road in the Mojave Desert seven miles east of California City. Larry was in the driver’s seat of the car, and Betty was leaning against a rear tire. The vehicle was out of gas, leaving local authorities to conclude they likely ran out of gas and were stranded in the desert. How they got there, and what they were doing so far away from their home has still not been determined.
Larry Petree was born in Paden, Oklahoma in 1933, and moved to Bakersfield in 1942 with his family at the age of 9. Graduating from Bakersfield High School in 1951, he later joined the Army before going to work for the Kern County Fire Department. Meanwhile, Petree played steel guitar in the legendary Bakersfield honky tonk scene during its heyday, regularly performing with Red Simpson at the iconic Bakersfield venue Trouts. Petree also appears on numerous Red Simpson recordings.
Petree played with some of the major artists who would launch national careers from the blue-collar California town. But instead of leaving on the road for stardom, Larry chose to stick around Bakersfield to stay close to wife Betty, and to keep his job at the fire department, which he worked at for 30 years. Larry Petree continued to perform with local artists later in life such as Tommy Hays and the Western Swingsters, and Jennifer Keel.
Considered nothing short of as legend in Bakersfield circles, Petree played steel guitar for new outfits as well, including Bakersfield revivalists The Soda Crackers. Larry Petree had performed with The Soda Crackers at the Bakersfield Hall of Fame three weeks prior to the disappearance. Family friend Kim Hays says that on the way to the Hall of Fame show, Larry had shown signs of becoming disoriented, and she had to help him get to the gig, leading to speculation that perhaps Larry had become disoriented once again, and that is how the couple ended up in the desert.
“His smile is something I’ll never forget. When he smiled he had these big cheeks. And there’s no way you couldn’t smile when you saw Larry smiling,” says 29-year-old Zane Adamo of The Soda Crackers. “And just the nicest guy ever. And he had such good wisdom, and I remember talking to him and just listening to every word he said.”
The local Sheriff’s Department is currently not investigating the incident further, but many in Bakersfield’s music community still have questions, while mourning the loss of this long-time friend and musician.