Country music has never really been a “family-friendly” genre so to say. With its themes of heartache, drinking, smoking and cheating … well heck, I don’t need to say much else. I just proved my point. But murder? That’s taking things to a whole other level, and with that, we introduce the story of Dave “Stringbean” Akeman.
Born in 1915 in Annville, Kentucky, Akeman was born on a farm to a banjo-playing father. Akeman fashioned his own banjo at the ripe old age of seven from a shoebox and borrowed thread. He learned to play in the style of the legendary uncle Dave Macon.
Times were tough for the Akeman household though, which is why Akeman’s mother would give him rocks to throw at birds. If he hit any, the family would have boiled fowl for dinner later. It’s not quite the same as K.F.C. but they did what they had to do. Those skills served him well though, as at age 12, he traded in two bantam chickens for a new banjo.
Remember though, given the timeframe and his family’s financial status, there was no way Akeman was going to make any money. Instead, he worked for the New Deal-era Civilization Conservation Corps, which was responsible for building roads and planting trees.
By now, if you’re wondering too where he got the nickname “Stringbean” from, he acquired it at a talent show judged by Asa Martin. He was 6’5 at the time, so when the MC called him to the stage, he just said “come here Stringbean and play us a tune,” unable to remember Akeman’s name.
At age 18, Stringbean was playing at local dances and with Cy Rogers’ Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. At age 20, he was played regularly on local radio.
Ironically enough, it wasn’t his natural picking talent that earned him his big break. It’s easy to sneer at the various amount of country artists today who are only here because of a sports injury or failed sports career as a test of their “authenticity,” but that’s actually a part of country music’s tradition.
Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe owned a rival baseball club, and after seeing Stringbean sling some fastballs, he wanted to know who he was. To his surprise, he was a musician too.
Not long after, Stringbean got his first real gig playing in Bill Monroe’s band. He played with the Bluegrass Boys from 1942-45. As to who replaced him? Why it was none other than Earl Scruggs, a man known for revolutionizing the way the banjo was played, whereas Stringbean’s “clawhammer” style was now being rendered archaic. With Scruggs’ three-finger technique, the bluegrass sound was officially “synthesized.” Along with Monroe, Stringbean also toured with Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Lew Childre and Uncle Dave Macon himself (who also willed Stringbean one of his signature banjos).
As for the next chapter, Stringbean married Estelle Stanfill, and in 1946, he became friends with Grandpa Jones who shared his love for the older songs and a simple country life.
Stringbean also dabbled into comedy during this time. He wore a suit made up of an exaggerated long shirt and pants that buckled somewhere around the knees (the pants were so small that he had to borrow them from Little Jimmy Dickens). He adopted a hang-dog expression and lazy drawl while writing comedy routines. A favorite of his was to read the inane goings-on of the folks back home from letters. Dumb? Yes. But funny? Oh heck, yes.
Stringbean was always an old soul though. He joined the Opry in 1942, and when Macon died in 1952, Stringbean took his place on the Opry, dedicating all of his songs “to the old timers.”
As for his own music, Stringbean didn’t start recording his own material until the 1960’s. On the Starday label, he played old traditional favorites such as “Ida Red,” and “John Henry,” but he also played comedic tunes such as “I’m The Man Who Rode The Mule Around The World” and “Herdin’ Cattle (In An Air Conditioned Cadillac).” He even took a darker turn on songs like “Wake Up Little Betty” and “Short Life and Trouble.”
It’s almost a paradox – on one hand, Stringbean was literally a link to country music’s past, and on the other, he also was a part of its future, but that’s for later. As for being a link to the past, you can imagine Stringbean’s sadness knowing that vaudeville entertainers like Macon were becoming a thing of the past. That didn’t deter him though. Every Saturday night, he was ushering in the 60’s at the Ryman by going back in time.
As for the future, Stringbean played what would be a recurring role on Hee-Haw as a scarecrow. He also appeared on the Ozark Jubilee.
Still, despite that success, Stringbean and his wife didn’t care much for the spotlight. They lived in a small cabin off of Baker Station Road with outdoor plumbing and no heat. The only “modern” item he owned was a colored television set!
Stringbean also wasn’t too big on banks either (he did live through the Great Depression after all). Ever since he was young, he kept his money in his overalls. When he achieved success, he still kept his cash in a tight wad on the front of his overalls.
You can see what Stringbean was like in that photo above – just a simple guy sitting on a chair playing his banjo. Some say his cash savings are concealed behind the bricks or paneled wood walls (this was his home after all).
His little secret about his money wouldn’t be a secret for much longer though. A woman who worked for Stringbean’s booking agency let slip the rumor that he kept all his cash hidden at his cottage. Her husband got wind of this, who told his brother Doug Brown and cousin John Brown. Remember what I said before too, Stringbean was there EVERY Saturday, so finding him wasn’t exactly too tough.
It was Saturday, Nov. 10, 1973 when Stringbean and Estelle would meet their demise though. While he was playing his usual Saturday slot at the Opry, the Brown boys were searching every which way for the cash in his house. Since they couldn’t find it, they figured they’d get the jump on Stringbean and his wife when they returned home. The final song Stringbean would sing was the old hymn, “Lord, I’m Coming Home.” And we thought Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive” was the sole cruelest bit of irony in the genre’s history.
When the two arrived home, Stringbean noticed something was wrong. He set his banjo on the porch and approached the cabin with his own pistol drawn, surprising (John) Brown immediately inside the doorway. Before he could act, Brown approached and shot Stringbean at point blank range.
Hearing the gunshots, Estelle fled the car to get help. Unfortunately, Brown ran her down in the field in front of the house, executing her from behind.
How ironic too, because while Stringbean had his foot planted in the past, his death ushered in many changes for the country music industry.
Echoes of those changes can still be felt today. What really is “safe” anymore? For artists in Nashville during this time, the town no longer felt like the friendly little neighborly town. Grandpa Jones reported the incident to the police when he came up to pick Stringbean up for a fishing trip, and thanks to anonymous tips, it didn’t take long to find who the killers were.
Still, what it meant for artists and citizens in Nashville at the time was to say “hello” to security cameras, big venues, and big business. In other words, the way we know now. The Opry moved from the sacred Ryman to the modern Opryland complex across the Cumberland. I said at the beginning that country music isn’t a family-friendly genre, but the Opry was the one institute associated with country music that felt like it held onto a friendlier spirit. As you can imagine after the incident, the audience became weary of venturing the downtown streets lined with pawn shops, peep shows and honky tonks and crawling with winos and prostitutes and country music casualties.
Stringbean and Estelle were buried side by side in Forrest lawn memorial gardens in Goodlettsville Tennessee. Some years later, a bronze statue of him was erected at his birthplace.
As for the Browns? They were sentenced to 198 years in prison in total. Doug died in 2003, but John was granted parole in 2014. Coincidentally, in 1996 a man who was renting Stringbean’s cabin noticed scraps of paper sticking out from behind the stones in the breast of the fireplace. He removed some of the stones and found the remains of $20,000. It was for naught though. The money was so worn-down and half eaten by insects and mice that it was rendered useless. Stringbean’s fortune, the very one the Browns were after two decades earlier had instead been left to the wild elements of Ridge Top Tennessee.
Not all music reinvents the wheel. There’s a time and a place for artists like that, and there’s a time for artists like Stringbean who try to preserve the past. We need both of them, and unfortunately at that time, we lost a link to the past. Despite this, Stringbean’s own songs hold up as well. If you don’t believe me, take a listen to those videos above. If you’re looking for the modern-day equivalents, you could look to Steve Martin or Old Crow Medicine Show.
Grandpa Jones honored his friend in a tribute on Hee-Haw, however they had also shot the full season ahead of his death, meaning that Stringbean would live on for a little while longer on everyone’s televisions (and hopefully even longer in their minds).
This post could have not have been written without the following books/articles:
- Scarecrow: The Music and Murder of Stringbean Akeman by Matt Powell
- Murder On Music Row | The Deaths Of David Akeman And James Phillip Widener by Pauline Murphy
- The Encyclopedia of Country and Western Music by Rick Marschall