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Sandy Holly sang Bakersfield country before she worked to keep the history alive

She was still in her teens when she began playing country music with her brothers, but when she landed in Bakersfield in 1966 after escaping a bad marriage, Sandy Holly found her musical home here.

A singer, band leader and stage costume designer, she later worked to preserve the city's rich legacy of country music. Holly died May 30 at her home in Bakersfield. She was 87.

"I loved her as a woman trying to make it in county music," said Theresa Spanke, whose own history as a country vocalist goes back decades.

While they are from two separate generations, Spanke said, she and Holly shared a common bond.

"She never gave up her desire and love for music," Spanke said.

Born Aug. 6, 1933, Holly grew up in Oklahoma City in a family of 10 children. It was a musical family, and Sandy would soon share the stage with her older brother and his band, Art Holly and the Wranglers. Another brother, Doyle Holly, would later go on to play bass with Buck Owens' band, the Buckaroos.

When Holly's marriage came apart in 1966, she piled her three children into the family's 1961 Cadillac and headed for Bakersfield, recalled her daughter, Sandi Neel.

"We had to sleep in the car until we found a place to live," she said.

"When we first got here, we were on Welfare," Neel remembered.

"I'm not ashamed to say that now, but I was then."

Sandy Holly worked at a pharmacy and then a dry cleaners. But she really blossomed after going to work for Park Lane Jewelry.

It turned out she was good at sales. However, music was calling.

"She started playing on the weekends," her daughter said.

"She was very creative. She was a professional dressmaker, a seamstress. She made a lot of stage costumes for singers and musicians, and for herself."

She soon began forming her own bands.

"I worked with her through the years, and with her brother, too," remembered Larry Petree, 87, long considered a local master on the pedal steel guitar.

"She was fun to work with," he said.

The musicians she hired were like a who's who of Bakersfield Sound pioneers. One of them was Gene Moles, whose breakthrough guitar work was featured by the likes of Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Red Simpson, Tex Ritter and The Ventures.

"I believe my dad worked with her," recalled Gene Moles' son, Eugene Moles, a highly respected picker in his own right who lives in Tennessee.

The younger Moles said, after his father died in 2002, Sandy Holly organized an annual tribute to Gene Moles.

"She put that together all on her own," Eugene remembered. "She loved my dad."

Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall followed Holly's lead and declared the Sunday closest to April 28 Gene Moles Day.

In 2005, Sandy Holly and the Fabulous Five performed at the annual tribute.

It would become another chapter in her life, an effort to keep the lights of Bakersfield country music burning, an effort that hasn't always been easy.

She was an advocate for a permanent exhibit dedicated to the Bakersfield Sound. And whenever there was a fundraiser to help an ailing musician, she was there, Spanke remembered.

Holly never reached the heights of fame and success she may have hoped for, Spanke said. But there are many definitions of success.

And Holly may indeed have found hers.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at Hillcrest Memorial Chapel.

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.