It wasn't supposed to end like this for local steel guitar master and Bakersfield Sound legend Larry Petree and his wife of 60 years, Betty Petree.
"At this moment, I'm not sure exactly what happened," Laurie Sanders, Larry Petree's cousin, told The Californian on Tuesday.
But Sanders knows this much: Authorities confirmed to her that Larry and Betty Petree were found dead with their vehicle Sunday afternoon on a remote desert road, east of California City. And law enforcement was not treating the area as a crime scene.
She said police later went to the couple's Bakersfield home in search of a relative. And authorities contacted her Tuesday morning.
"They need an official next of kin," she said.
Larry and Betty Petree were a wonderful couple, she said, loved by friends and music fans across Kern County. But many of those friends have been trying to make sense of what happened after news began to spread Monday.
"To say I'm devastated ... is an understatement," said Carol Donnelly, who met Petree when she started working at the former Trout's Nightclub in Oildale, where Petree performed for a number of years.
Country music singer-songwriter Mario Carboni lauded Petree for his contributions not only as a great steel player, but for his kindness and good heart as a person.
"Larry worked extensively with Red Simpson at Trout's and his playing can be heard on Red's stellar recordings of 'Lucky Ol Colorado'" and other selections, Carboni said.
"Everyone who is a musician in Bakersfield knows who Larry Petree was," said Carboni. "Everyone loves him. He was an asset to any group he was in."
Petree was born in Paden, Okla. in 1933, but moved with his family to Bakersfield as a child. He graduated from Bakersfield High School in 1951, completed a tour of duty in the U.S. Army and went to work for the Kern County Fire Department.
But like many of his surviving friends in music, Petree declined to commit to touring with a band, and instead played with innumerable acts throughout his career.
"This has really caught me by surprise," said veteran singer and recording artist Jennifer Keel. "You never expect such a tragedy.
"Larry always had a smile and a kind word," she said. "He was a very well-respected musician, steel player, in the Bakersfield country music family."
Keel played music with Petree many times over the years.
"He just loved playing music," she said, "and even though he played with several bands through the years he was always available to fill in anytime you needed him."
Even as he aged, Petree never seemed to lose his passion for playing music and flashing his contagious smile.
Guitarist-fiddler-vocalist Ernie Lewis was introduced to Petree in 1979 when he needed some help with a pedal steel guitar that he had acquired.
"In the late '80s and early '90s, I played with Larry when I was in the Moosehead Band. We performed at many engagements at Ethels and at private parties," Lewis said in an email.
"Larry was a joy to be around, especially when we were on stage," Lewis said. "He was extremely knowledgeable when it came to chord progressions and fills. He was the first individual to turn me on to Western Swing, which was his favorite type of music. I still use the licks that I learned from him when I play today."
But it wasn't only the music that drew musicians and fans to Petree. He had a unique charm about him that people loved, Lewis said.
"He was always polite and smiled, and when it came to playing music, he was meticulous, as he was when he was a mechanic for the Kern County Fire Department. He could literally rebuild an engine and not show signs of working on it. He kept his tools exceptionally clean, as he did his home and music gear."
Lewis feels blessed to have gotten Petree into his home studio in recent months, where Petree laid down steel guitar lines for a Trout’s tribute song Lewis wrote called "The Last Bakersfield Honky Tonk."
"I had to include Larry in the song," Lewis said. "His presence was etched in the walls of Trout's. (Country music artists) Bobby Durham and Theresa Spanke also appear in the song."
The loss of the master steel player, the loss of the friend, has countless local musicians and music lovers in mourning — and wondering what could have happened.
According to Laurie Sanders, her cousin apparently got lost on his way to his last gig a few weeks ago. Apparently, he became disoriented and didn't show up.
For a man who was never late to a show, it may have been a warning sign, she said.
"What were they doing out there?" she asked. "They don't travel that far away from home."
But maybe they're home now. Someplace, one might hope, where music is on the menu.