Editor’s Note: This article is a contribution by writer, musician, and long-time Saving Country Music reader Steven Paul.
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On this day fifty years ago, November 10th, 1973, Stringbean Akeman frailed his final phrases on a Vega #9 five-string banjo, did his signature hand wave and hat flip one last time, and stepped off the Opry stage and into the history books in what would come to signal a change for the Opry itself, country music as an industry, and even country music as an institution. Before the night was out, Stringbean Akeman and his wife Estelle (Stanfill) were shot by two 23-year old cousins who’d come to know of Stringbean’s habit of keeping large amounts of cash on hand.
Understanding how significant Stringbean was to the Grand Ole Opry, and to Country Music as an entity, can be difficult for those who didn’t live through it, or for those whose knowledge of the later golden years of country music is cursory at best. And it can be difficult to explain because Stringbean’s contributions to country music are oft-understated, and sometimes outright overlooked.
In fact, then-contemporary writings on the evolution of bluegrass music omit Stringbean’s place as banjoist for Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys before Earl Scruggs entirely, retroactively erasing his position as the true first banjo player of what would become the bluegrass subgenre, and later its own genre entirely.
The death of Stringbean didn’t just rob the Opry stage of one of its longest-serving, legacy performers (Stringbean had been performing with the Opry for around three decades) it robbed the folk and old-time movements that had grown during the sixties of a beloved preservationist who, unlike fellow Vega player Pete Seeger, had actually lived those traditions in their purest and most authentic form, instead of just preserving them from the outside looking in. It also robbed the country music community of one of its most beloved couples. Stringbean and Estelle had friends as diverse as Porter Wagoner, George Morgan, Grandpa Jones, Mac Wiseman, and Little Jimmy Dickens.
Furthermore, It robbed country music the institution of a living, breathing dinosaur from the earliest days of country music, when music was a performative art that relied on a connection between performer and audience, not just a style of sound bought and sold as a commodity on mass-produced, faceless vinyl discs that every buyer heard the same way, with no interaction with the performer.
The death of Stringbean Akeman ushered in a colossal, almost industry-wide shift in the country music world. The violent killings changed how the people making country music in Nashville lived. Some stars moved, others built fences and installed security, and all became more isolated and closed off. And just like music as a cultural treasure had shifted from being shared between performer and viewer to something bought and sold, the very fabric of country music changed from one of community to one more similar to the other genres at the time.
Compared to the other genres pre-1973, country music may as well all have happened in one building. The performers interacted with one another, recorded whole albums together, and shared their art in a way unique to the golden era of country music. Indeed, the Opry brought nearly every major country music personality together under one roof, much the same way Hee Haw would do on television.
There is simply little equivalent in the other genres, where many of the major acts might as well exist in a vacuum, not connected to one another. It is this unity that allows country music the institution to birth shows like Country’s Family Reunion, the sort of program that the other genres would be unable to replicate.
To illustrate how connected the Nashville country music community was at the time, it was Grandpa Jones himself who found the murder scene, and before investigations could conclude, a who’s who of Opry members had already swarmed the scene. Later, Roy Acuff would break the Opry rule about politics on the stage to call for the reinstatement of the death penalty.
Perhaps it was a shared cultural shock that inadvertently allowed the legacy of Stringbean to slip through the cracks. Friends, neighbors, and stars of the Opry may have been reluctant to open old wounds. Stringbean is rarely, if ever, mentioned on the Country’s Family Reunion stage, for example. Or maybe Stringbean simply had to be seen to be believed, and his near-eradication from contemporary writings was organic, with Stringbean accidentally becoming an image of comedy instead of musicianship thanks to Hee Haw.
Maybe country music was so accustomed to tragedy, from the death of Hank Williams and the loss of Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Cowboy Copas and Jim Reeves in plane crashes, to the deaths of Ira Louvin and Little Joe Carson by drunk driver, that Stringbean was simply another loss for the community of country music to overcome.
Born David Akeman in 1915, Stringbean’s early musical career is a virtual fairy tale of romanticized misconceptions and stories bordering on the downright ludicrous. Accounts conflict on whether he won a talent contest organized by Asa Martin or lost the contest but was hired anyway, and equally conflict on how Akeman became acquainted with Bill Monroe. Some accounts say they met through the game of baseball, with Monroe at the time not even knowing of Akeman’s talents.
Whether or not Asa Martin truly forgot David Akeman’s name when he allegedly called him either ‘String Bean’ or ‘String Beans’ it was ‘Stringbean’ that struck the chord and became Akeman’s stage name until the end of his career. He would later half-attempt to rebrand himself as ‘The Kentucky Wonder,’ still keeping the connection to Stringbean because The Kentucky Wonder itself is a variety of the eponymous bean. The nickname didn’t resonate as well as plain Stringbean did.
He completed the Stringbean character by sewing a long vertical-striped shirt that further accentuated his height into a short pair of pants that belted near the knees, creating the persona of an unusually tall man with short legs. To this he added a floppy brimmed hat, painted and up-curled eyebrows that gave a permanently sad expression, and a signature hand wave that may have referenced the legendary Babe Ruth moment in which Ruth is believed to have gestured in the direction he would famously hit.
Early variations of the Stringbean costume did not include shoes, further hamming up the rural nature of the fictitious Stringbean persona, but later in his career he would add not only western boots but rhinestone pants acquired from little Jimmy Dickens. It was rural, hillbilly imagery that was almost Shakespearean in its complex simplicity. Maybe it was because it fit some then-cultural stereotype on the poor rural lifestyle, or maybe it was because it was so truly over-the-top that the imagery of the lanky Stringbean, wearing poor-man’s tackily-colored clothing and a worn-out hat with a higher end banjo caught on.
Whatever reason for the instant belovedness of the Stringbean character, it sure seemed as if there had been a gaping hole in the collective country music entertainment subconscious just waiting for a character that truly epitomized the hammed up, parodied impoverished lifestyle to step in and plug the hole, thus completing country music.
Stringbean’s banjo style remains truly unique. With licks borrowed from Uncle Dave Macon, who would will Stringbean a Gibson Rb-11 that is currently housed at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville (String, like fellow banjo preservationists Grandpa Jones and Pete Seeger, would play a Vega predominantly) and a smorgasbord of old-time phrasings, Stringbean would play both the traditional frailing style and the more modern minstrel-style two finger notes.
Armed with songs like “Poor Ellen Smith” that carries a bittersweet irony in hindsight, with its opening stanza of “Poor Ellen Smith, how was she found? Shot through the heart, lying cold on the ground!” and Pretty Polly, with its equally on the nose “I ain’t no man for trouble, but I’ll die before I run” verse, Stringbean’s peculiar, uneven stanzas and wailing high notes are the sort of sounds from which originated stereotypes about old-time mountain music. If a folk song were a dinosaur, then Stringbean was a mosquito in the amber, preserving the DNA of folk music for some stray John Hammond to resurrect it.
Stringbean would record well-known folk songs like “Sally Goodin,” “Pretty Polly,” “Cumberland Gap,” “Roving Gambler,” and “Rye Whiskey,” along with a healthy dose of humorous, self-deprecating originals like “Herding Cattle” with its vicarious imagery of a country man herding cattle in a luxurious car, the sort Stringbean would famously ride in (he is alleged to have never learned to drive) and the now-equally-well-known “Hot Corn Cold Corn.” As testament to how Stringbean Akeman has gone curiously under-recognized for his contributions to the art, it is little known that Akeman himself was the author of this now well-established song, often mistaken for an older traditional ballad.
As a testament that The Bean’s popularity had swelled, a Stringbean song and joke book was printed, the same as his mentor Uncle Dave had done, and the Gold Tone company sells reissues of the Stringbean book. For the curious, this rather quaint item offers a unique glimpse into the entertainment world of mid-50s country music, though some mind find it rather antiquated.
In the sixties, with the rise in interest in folk music and folk culture, Stringbean would become popular touring on college campuses, and famously launched into household name status with the premiere of Hee-Haw at the end of the decade. With his years of comic work and experience with a dry, deadpan delivery, Stringbean became the straight-faced scarecrow, dismayed at the absurdities of life in Kornfield County, as well as the man in overalls famously keeping nonsensical letters from home tucked close to his “heart, heart, heart heart.”
To demonstrate the way country stars of that era were a close knit extended family more so than other artists in other art forms, Kornfield County may as well have been a real place somewhere between Bugtussle and Petticoat Junction, where most of the country stars lived and played music all day, as if Hee-Haw were a reality show capturing the real daily lives of its cast.
Ever distrustful of banks after living through The Depression, the humble Akeman, who never drove, never ate beef, and whose only luxuries were a yearly new Cadillac (for work) and a color television set, became known for carrying large wads of cash. It was this habit that led two home invaders to his house. They ransacked the house for the rumored fortune in cash, and, after not finding it, waited for Stringbean to return. When Stringbean showed up fresh from his Opry performance, he was shot, and afterwards the burglars shot Estelle.
It was the sort of brutal homicide that would change the very way country stars lived. Grandpa Jones would change his state of residence, other stars would move to other cities in Tennessee, and the culture of country music would become more similar to that of rock’n’roll than it had ever been before. The murder of Stringbean represented not just the death of a man whose early career had been the sort of country music imitated, replicated, and caricatured by the early Opry broadcasts, Hee-Haw, and the Louisiana Hayride, but ostensibly the death of that very way of making music commercially.
In a way, with Stringbean Akeman also died the very style of music he’d preserved: the kind that was made by a performer playing a part for an audience that was present, instead of just a faceless persona of sound pressed into a physical product—or a stiff, detached performance by a star running through the hits the audience could listen to at home like an animatronic performer on an advertisement stage.
On this day in 1973, we lost a living example of what country music used to be, and how we used to interact with the concept of ‘music.’ We lost the most tangible, unique element of what defined country music as more than just another style of music: the community, the shared participation in something uniquely Americana, and the element of music as a shared, intimate performance art between real people, acting and telling jokes and playing humorous personas.
We lost the part of country music that made us fall in love with country music.
In an epilogue fit for the grandest of folk stories, in 1996, behind a removable brick in the Akemans’ fireplace, new homeowners found the ruined remains of Stringbean’s fortune, which the murderers never found. Like other stories about Stringbean, the truth of this part of the tale may have long been outran by the fiction.
Verified or not, this epilogue has become part and parcel of the larger-than-life mythology of Stringbean Akeman. And like every story about Stringbean, the sense of fantasy, drama and legend around his stranger-than-fiction life will help keep his contributions to country music in memory.
This November, keep Stringbean Akeman close to your “heart, heart, heart, heart.”
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For further reading on the earliest days of country music, the history of the five-string banjo and its place in rural music:
Warren Causey: The Stringbean Murders
Taylor Hagood: Stringbean: The Life and Murder of a Country Music Legend
Michael Doubler: Dixie Dewdrop: The Uncle Dave Macon Story
Louis Jones: Everybody’s Grandpa