Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Remembering David "Stringbean" Akeman

It was 38 years ago on November 10, 1973 that one of the most horrific events in Grand Ole Opry took place as David Akeman, known to all of us as Stringbean, and his wife Estelle were murdered at the home outside of Nashville, after arriving home from the Ryman Auditorium and the Opry.

Too many country fans remember Stringbean only for the way he and his wife died. But those who saw him perform in person or on Hee Haw realized that he was one of the most original comedians in country music as well as a fine clawhammer banjo player and traditional singer. His distinctive striped shirt, low-belted pants, and funny duckwalk were as familiar as Minnie Pearl's straw hat. His droll wit and deadpan irony were reflected in signature one-liners such as "Lord, I fell so unneccessary."

Stringbean was born on June 17, 1916 in Annville, Kentucky. He would grow up in eastern Kentucky and worked in Civilian Conservation Corps camps during the depression before landing his first musical job, as well as his nickname, from country performer Asa Martin. After playing banjo for several bands around the Lexington area, he came to Nashville around 1942 and became Bill Monroe's first banjo player. Later in the 1940s he teamed with fellow Opry member Lew Childre for a duet act and became a protege of Uncle Dave Macon. The older banjo player taught Stringbean much of his repertoire of old-time banjo songs and even gave him one of his own banjos. By the time Macon died in 1952, Stringbean was working as a solo act on the Grand Ole Opry and adapting current songs such as "Hillbilly Fever" to his clawhammer style.

Feeling his appeal lay primarily in personal appearances, Stringbean postponed making his own records until 1960, when be began doing a series of albums for Starday Records. The first of these was "Old Time Banjo Pickin' and Singin', released in 1960. His best known album was "A Salute to Uncle Dave Macon", which was released in 1963, and has been later reissued. Stringbean would record later for the Nugget and Cullman labels. Joining the cast of Hee Haw in 1969 rejuvenated his career, though his comedy was featured more than his music. He often teamed with fellow banjoist-comedian Grandpa Jones, with whom he had become a close friend and neighbor.

In 1973, the brutal murder of Stringbean and his wife, Estelle Stanfill Akeman, at their remote three-room cabin shocked Nashville's music community. The two gunmen, John and Doug Brown, were waiting for Stringbean at home after a Saturday-night Opry performance in hopes of robbing him of cash rumored to be hidden in his cabin; they came away with a few guns and a chainsaw. Though the killers were caught and convicted, many felt an important link with country music's tradition had been senselessly broken. In 1996, police discovered remnants of hundreds of dollars stashed in the walls of the Akeman's cabin.

Stringbean and Estelle's bodies were discovered the following morning by Grandpa Jones, who arrived at their home to pick up Stringbean for a fishing trip. Grandpa was so shaken by the murders that he moved from Nashville for a period of time, performing in a dinner theater he owned in rural Arkansas. Roy Acuff publicly called for the death penalty to be reinstated in Tennessee. After Stringbean's murder, Roy had concerns about living alone after the passing of his wife and this was one of the considerations to him moving to the house at Opryland, where he lived his final years. And, Skeeter Davis was very vocal in her comments regarding Stringbean's murder.

Stringbean was one of the last in a long line of Opry comedians, who would dress in the over exaggerated hillbilly style. Those comedians included Rod Brasfield, Lew Childre, Whitey Ford (known as the Duke of Paducah), Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones, and in his earlier years, Archie Campbell. It is interesting that all but Archie and Stringbean have been elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, and both should be.

What a lot of people forget, especially after seeing Stringbean on Hee Haw, is what a great musican and banjo player he was. He really played the banjo well and could have played with any bluegrass group in the country if he had so desired.

As I stated above, I really believe that if not for his early death, Stringbean would have been elected to the Hall of Fame. With him being a part of Hee Haw, he was at the peak of his popularity and much like Hee Haw's exposure helped to get Grandpa Jones elected, I believe the same would have happened with Stringbean.

Stringbean appeared on both Opry shows the night of November 10. On the 1st show, he appeared on the 7:00 segment, while on the 2nd show he was on at 10:15. In honor of Stringbean, here is the Opry line up and song list from Saturday November 10, 1973, Stringbean's final night at the Opry.

1st show:
6:30: Mrs. Grissoms
Willis Brothers (host): Little Red Wagon
Johnny Carver: Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree
Willis Brothers: God Walks These Hills With Me

6:45: Rudy's
Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper (host): Forget, Forgive Us #1
Bill Carlisle: Too Old To Cut The Mustard
Josie Brown: Precious Memories Follow Me
Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper: When My Time Comes To Go

7:00: Rudy's
Tex Ritter (host): Have I Told You Lately That I Love You
STRINGBEAN: HILLBILLY FEVER
K. Wheeler: The First Time For Us
Tex Ritter: Green Grow The Lilacs
STRINGBEAN: Y'ALL COME
K. Wheeler: Listen, Spot
Tex Ritter: Fall Away

7:30: Standard Candy
Bobby Bare (host): Ride Me Down Easy
Jimmy Martin: Just Plain Yellow
Melba Montgomery: Crawdad Song
Crook Brothers: Chicken Reel
Bobby Bare: The Streets Of Baltimore
Jimmy Martin: Tennessee
Melba Montgomery: Wrap Your Love Around Me
Bobby Bare: Detroit City

8:00: Martha White
Roy Acuff (host): Night Train To Memphis
Grandpa Jones: Mountain Dew
Jimmy Driftwood: Run, Johnny, Run/Tennessee Stud
Roy Acuff: Wabash Cannonball
Grandpa Jones: Orange Blossom Special
Brother Oswald: Roll On, Buddy

8:30: Stephens
Billy Grammer (host): Gotta Travel On
Marion Worth: Paper Roses
Billy Grammer, Jr: Orange Blossom Special
Fruit Jar Drinkers: Soldiers Joy
Billy Grammer: I'm Letting You Go
Marion Worth: Me & Bobby McGee
Billy Grammer: Just A Closer Walk With Thee

2nd show:
9:30: Kelloggs
Willis Brothers (host): Give Me 40 Acres
Johnny Carver: Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree
Jimmy Martin: Honey, You Don't Know My Mind
Josie Brown: Precious Memories Follow Me
Skeeter Willis: Maiden's Prayer
Johnny Carver: Tonight Someone's Falling In Love
Jimmy Martin: Who'll Sing For Me When I'm Gone

10:00: Fender
Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper (host): Little Darling Pal Of Mine
Bill Carlisle: Have A Drink On Me/No Help Wanted
Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper: Coming Down From God

10:15: Union 76
Tex Ritter (host): There's A New Moon Over My Shoulder
STRINGBEAN: GONNA MAKE MYSELF A NAME/HOT CORN, COLD CORN (LAST SONG)
Tex Ritter: Willie, The Wondering Gypsy & Me

10:30: Trailblazer
Roy Acuff (host): Ball Knob, Arkansas
Grandpa Jones: Bright Morning Stars Are Rising
Jimmy Driftwood: The Mixed Up Family

10:45: Beech-Nut
Bobby Bare (host): Four Strong Winds
K. Wheeler: The First Time For Us
Crook Brothers: Black Mountain Rag
Bobby Bare: Detroit City

11:00: Coca-Cola
Billy Grammer (host): Bonaparte's Retreat
Melba Montgomery: Don't Keep Me Lonely Too Long
Billy Grammer, Jr: Orange Blossom Special
Fruit Jar Drinkers: Nubbing Ridge
Billy Grammer: Somewhere My Love
Melba Montgomery: Let's All Go Down To The River
Sam McGee: Worry, Worry Blues
Billy Grammer: What A Friend

11:30: Elm Hill
Marty Robbins (host): I Walk Alone
Marion Worth: Paper Roses/Sleeping At The Foot Of The Bed
Ronnie Robbins: Too Much Love Between Us/Mama Tried
Marty Robbins: Love Me/Big Boss Man/Crawling On My Knees/Don't Worry/El Paso

The following Saturday night, November 17, 1963, Bud Wendell started the Opry by reading a tribute to Stringbean. And, while Roy Acuff was there and was actually hosting his segments, he did not sing on that night's Opry. Howdy Forrester and Brother Oswald played instrumental numbers.

Thanks for taking the time with me to remember a great entertainer, David "Stringbean" Akeman.

15 comments:

  1. If I remember correctly, Grandpa had recently had heart surgery of some kind, and a lot of people were worried that the death would affect his health. This was on a Hee Haw anniversary special: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WBqntN3GCk

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  2. I remember String on Hee Haw and on Youtube.Yes,String and Archie Campbell should be in the Hall of Fame soon.How about 2012.

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  3. How many people have been able to sing and play a banjo well at the same time?
    I have read that it is musically quite difficult. Looked easy for String!

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  4. I agree ! If Stringbean would have lived a full life into the 1980's and 1990's, like Grandpa Jones and Bill Carlisle, he too would already be in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

    I remember reading a interview with Grandpa Jones, in which he was really pushing for String to be elected to the Hall of Fame. This was in the 1990's sometime. It is sad that Grandpa didn't live to see that happen for his friend.

    I agree, Archie Campbell needs to be inducted as well.

    Sadly, I doubt 2012 will be the year for String or Arch.

    I guessing in 2012 we will see either The Browns or Connie Smith go in on the Veterans side, and The Oaks or Kenny Rogers on the Modern Category.

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  5. Fred in Bismarck here:

    It's nice that there's a lot of good product out on Stringbean these days. No excuse, anymore, for being without!

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  6. In the veterans category last year, Archie Campbell was one of the finalist, along with the Browns, Jean Shepard, The Wilburn Brothers and a couple of others. Of course, Jean got elected. Connie Smith and Ray Stevens were finalists in the modern category. The prior year, Bobby Bare was one of the finalists. I also know there has been strong support for Ronnie Milsap, but as is the case every year, you never know what the voters will do. There are so many candidates that deserve to get in.

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  7. No one could object to any of the finalists Byron mentioned. As was mentioned above, longevity IS an issue, and it helped Grandpa Jones, and, sad to say, it hurts Stringbean's chances. When we have referred to those the Hall of Fame has ignored, I'm surprised Archie Campbell wasn't on my radar screen; he had a tremendous impact.

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  8. Longevity is a big issue as Mike mentioned. Bill Carlisle is a perfect example. He had a nice career in country music, but he was by no means a "superstar" even in his best years. But, he was around forever, he was funny and everyone liked him. I think it also helped Grandpa Jones.

    On the flip side, I feel a short career has hurt the Wilburn Brothers, as Doyle died in the early 1980s and Teddy really reduced his appearances on the Opry as the years went by. Jim Ed Brown has been around forever, but the Browns ended their careers in the 1960s. Jean Shepard on the other hand, has stayed active in the business and that eventually helped her.

    Archie Campbell was not only a funny comedian, but he was also a good songwriter and could actually sing a little bit. He was a big comic writer and he was one of the main reasons Hee Haw became so successful, not only for his work on camera, but his contribution off camera.

    I still find it interesting that when you look at the country comics who are in the Hall of Fame, you have Minnie Pearl, Rod Brasfield, Whitey Ford, Lew Childre and Grandpa Jones. You could even put Homer & Jethro in the group. Stringbean and Archie are as good as any of those, maybe with the exception of Minnie, who was in a class by herself.

    But, I think once you are out of the public eye, the voters easily forget. Especially when the voters are getting younger and tend to look more at the artists that they are more familiar with.

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  9. The oddity is that Archie also had longevity. IF I remember correctly--note the capitalization--Archie actually performed as Art Bell with the Golden West Cowboys before they went to the Grand Ole Opry with Pee Wee King in 1937. Archie died in 1987, still a star and writer of Hee Haw. That's a pretty long career!

    I wonder whether the Browns are considered in part due to Jim Ed's longevity. I know I've mentioned it before, but I think he is the only person to have a #1 hit as a single, duet and trio where it wasn't a "special event," ala The Highwaymen, but as a regular performing group.

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  10. I don't believe Lew Childre is a Hall of Fame member?

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  11. You're right. I was looking at the wrong list. Thanks for noticing.

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  12. That's right,Lew Childre is not in the Hall of Fame.But he should be along with Stringbean,Archie Campbell,Lonzo & Oscar,Jerry Clower.Put them all in the next 5 years.

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  13. "Rooster"November 23, 2011 at 4:19 PM

    I remeber as a 10yr.old listening to Stringbean,on the Opry,on WSM650am on the radio,in the kitchen,the night he got killed.The next day,a Sunday, me & my Dad, was driving around looking at used Trucks,after Church,& heard it on the Radio.The next day,at my Elementary School, his Death, was the Talk among students,and Teachers. Hank Snow,lost a Guitar Player,Jimmy W.,to Murder,in Nashville,around the same time.

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  14. Grandpa Jones,was the one,who discovered Stringbean and Estelle's bodies.
    Yeah,I think Stringbean,should have done been elected to the Hall Of Fame.
    Wade Mainer,Banjoist/Singer, just died in Sept.2011,at 104,and he's recorded since the 1930's,even played in 1941,for President FDR,at the White House,& they won't consider Wade,because he wasn't Mainstream Nashville. Check out Wade Mainer's Videos on youtube.com, he plays the same style as Stringbean and Grandpa.

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  15. Stringbean for hall of fame

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