August 2023

The Life And Death of Stringbean

Les Marcott | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Les Marcott

David "Stringbean" Akeman was a most beloved Grand Ole Opry star from 1942 till his death in 1973.  He shared the same birthdate as two other legendary music figures – Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra on June 17, 1915.  The Grand Ole Opry was a creation of WSM radio in 1925 located in Nashville, Tennessee.  The show quickly became hugely popular with a radio broadcast that could be heard across the U.S. and into Canada.

In those early days, one could describe those Opry shows as hillbilly vaudeville – music and comedy.  Providing the comedy part of the show were often banjo players.  According to author Taylor Haygood, "ridiculous costumes, oversized shoes, and comedy gags were part of being a banjo player.  Comedian/banjo player Steve Martin would certainly concur.  He might even call them "wild and crazy guys".  Stringbean surely fit that description.  For his act, he would wear an extra-long striped shirt, small, brimmed hat, suspenders, and jeans buckled just above his knees.  His costume certainly accentuated his tall, gaunt figure.  String's appearance fed into a "hillbilly as freak" stereotype, but no matter, he played it to the hilt.  Channeling Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, String entertained and won over his audience. 

As good a comedian as he was, Haygood in his recent book Stringbean: The Life And Murder Of A Country Music Legend, reminds us not to let those talents overshadow his considerable prowess as a banjo player. In fact, String was a key figure in the development of bluegrass music, its creation ascribed to Bill Monroe.  Akeman was the first banjo player Monroe employed.  The banjo was the missing element that bluegrass needed.  His method of playing was called "clawhammer", where the strings are struck using the back of your index or middle fingernail, then alternately plucked with the thumb.  While playing, the hand looks like a "claw", while the strings are "hammered".  Stringbean didn't last long in Monroe's band.  He was replaced by another soon to be world famous banjo player with his own distinctive sound – Earl Scruggs.

By the late 1950's, rock music began to overshadow its country cousin in listenership.  Easy listening pop was also making inroads in the country market.  Nashville began to recalibrate with a more gentle, soothing sound pioneered by Chet Atkins at RCA.  The rough-hewn honky tonk sound of someone like Stringbean was no longer welcomed in Music City.  Crooners like Jim Reaves and Patsy Cline would make country more palatable to mainstream audiences.  This period should have been a low point in Stringbean's career, but the burgeoning folk music scene revived and reinvigorated it.  The back wooded hillbilly from Jackson County, Kentucky would wow the college crowds that fellow banjo players Pete Seeger and Dave Guard introduced to folk music.  And while these two accomplished gentleman may have viewed folk music as a more intellectual than spiritual endeavor, Stringbean was the living, breathing embodiment of Appalachian mountain music.  On these college tours, he did have to make one concession – he had to ditch the costume.  On a few occasions, String didn't get quite the response that he had hoped for, in which he replied, "they took me serious".

In 1969, he would land a recurring role on a rural version of Laugh In.  The show was called Hee Haw which starred Buck Owens and Roy Clark.  It became a huge hit ensuring that Stringbean's relevance and popularity would continue.  Haygood recounts an unlikely fan that String would encounter at a Houston hotel.  It was Isaac Hayes of Shaft fame.

David "Stringbean" Akeman's career would end in his gruesome murder on November 10th, 1973.  Living through the Great Depression would lend itself to a great distrust of banks by many people.  Stringbean and his beloved wife Estelle were two of those doubters of the banking system.  His earnings, in cash, were hidden in several places in and around his property 20 miles north of Nashville in the Ridgetop area.  He kept a lot of cash on hand stuffed in his bib overalls pocket.  Friends and family often warned the Akeman's to be careful. Their only indulgences were a new Cadillac and a color television set. Unfortunately, it was only a matter of time before the wrong people got wind of the substantial amounts of cash they possessed. Stringbean and Estelle were shot to death upon returning home from an Opry performance by cousins John and Marvin Brown. The killers were so inept, the cash carried by both String and Estelle was left behind. 
However, some of his personal items and papers were taken.  It was said that the murders changed Nashville from a polite, sleepy southern town into one mirroring many of America's urban centers where crime, drugs, and dilapidated downtown areas were proliferating.

And while one cannot talk about Akeman's life without mentioning the way he died, Taylor Haygood has succeeded where others have failed by primarily concentrating on the fabulous career and accomplishments of a great Americana artist.

 

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Les Marcott | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Les Marcott is a songwriter, musician, performer and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.  For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2023 Les Marcott
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine

 

 

 

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