Banjo picker, country comedian, originator of hip-hop fashion, Dave "Stringbean" Akeman is a legend in country music. Everything about the man defied convention, but at the same time his music defined tradition. The start of his life followed what seems to be the ready-made template of country music biographies: growing up poor in Kentucky, born into a musical family, a father who played banjo at local barn dances who taught him how to play... if his childhood were depicted in a movie, critics would pan it for being hackneyed, hokey and clichéd. Stringbean traded two chickens in exchange for his first banjo. As he entered adulthood, the six foot five plucker entered a talent show and won. Asa Martin, a musical saw player with some clout, awarded the prize to Stringbean and helped him attain his first paying gigs. While performing part time, Stringbean also travelled the south as a semi-pro ball player, something that also seems to be somewhat of a country music cliché (Roy Acuff, Dave Dudley, Charlie Pride and Jim Reeves all had semi-professional baseball careers).
Stringbean had a remarkable career, staring off slow but eventually ascending to superstardom when he joined the cast of Hee-Haw. Too bad he was brutally murdered.
Stringbean is regarded as one of the finest banjo pluckers in the history of country music. He gained street cred galore playing with Bill Monroe's group for three years in the nineteen forties. Monroe, himself, was in charge of a semi-pro ball club and saw Stringbean compete against his team. Inquiring about the wiry pitcher he soon found out he was also a musician. It is not clear how Stringbean joined Monroe's group but they would play music together from 1943 until the end of 1945. He can be heard, for certain, on the song Goodbye Old Pal. String played on several other recordings, but without credit, making it hard to determine which songs he appears on. While playing with Monroe he teamed with some guy named Willie Egbert Westbrook and took his first stab at comedy. The two did their vaudeville-style act half-way through the Monroe group's set, allowing the band to enjoy a mid-show breather. They billed themselves as String Beans and Cousin Wilbur. Stringbean left the Monroe group soon after and Willie Egbert Westbrook promptly dropped off the face of the earth.
When Stringbean left Monroe's group, he replaced Westbrook with "Doctor" Lew Childre as his new comedy partner. Lew was a star in the musical comedy world, made steady radio appearances, but rarely pressed albums. Lew had formed the Alabama Cotton Boys in the nineteen twenties... a group that featured a young square named Lawrence Welk. Childre was a regular on the vaudeville circuit and over the course of those years had amassed a large repertoire of stock comedy bits. When Childre paired with Stringbean, they were well equipped with all-manner of cornball routines. They toured with the novelty act for three years, but never bothered to record it. Around the same time, Stringbean was crossing paths with the man who would grow to be his best friend, Grandpa Jones. They lived near one another and, of course, were known for a similar mix of banjo and comedy. Around the same time, Stringbean first experimented with a crazy-ass wardrobe.
Stringbean's amusing attire consisted of an oversized shirt that covered his privates, tucked securely into a short pair of jeans with a belt tightened around the knees. The extra small pants were originally donated by another country star known for his atypical dimensions, Little Jimmy Dickens. Stringbean would refer in interviews to an old fiddle player named Slim Miller (pictured right) as one of his main comedic inspirations. Slim was another country comedian with a lazy demeanor and haggard clothes. Miller played fiddle on an Ohio based radio program known as the Renfro Valley Barn Dance that, despite being located in the north, broadcasted almost exclusively on NBC's stations in the south. Stringbean was first introduced to Slim's mix of country music and jokes on the radio program in the early forties and eventually saw him perform live several times while on the road - always taking note of what he saw. Miller was just one personality Bean borrowed elements from to create his own original persona. Stringbean started hanging around Uncle Dave Macon, the legend and first major star of The Grand Ole Opry. Macon also just happened to be a banjo playing country comedian. Macon appreciated what String could do with a banjo and invited him to hang out backstage at the Opry whenever he liked. Macon gave several stories, jokes and general advice to Stringbean as hand-me-downs. When the legendary Macon resigned to the fact he was dying, he gave Bean his best banjo. He passed away in 1952 and Stringbean picked up where the old man had left off - essentially inheriting Macon's spot on the Opry... and his fame.
Although Stringbean was popular for a good fifteen years prior, he did not appear on a record of his own until the early sixties when he was signed to the ultimate country and western label, Starday Records. The company started by featuring Stringbean on a couple of compilations - Nashville Saturday Night and an album with the hyperbolic title Five String Banjo Jamboree Spectacular.
1962 marked his first solo LP, The Kentucky Wonder and His Five String Banjo. The album is full of songs with cheeky titles like Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy, 20 Cent Cotton & 90 Cent Meat and the dated nineteen twenties relic Don't Bob Your Hair, Girls. Greasy was a song Bean took from Uncle Dave and Don't Bob was previously known as Why Bob Your Hair, Girls? 1962 was full of Stringbean tracks on Starday. He was showcased on the compilations More Banjo in the Hills, The Bluegrass Hall of Fame, Bluegrass Samplers, Country Music Hall of Fame Volume Two and Opry Time in Tennessee. His next solo LP More of that Rare Old Time Banjo Pickin and Singin featured the classics Chewing Gum (a Dr. Demento staple), Suicide Blues and Run, Rabbit, Run (obviously a song about John Updike novels).
Stringbean remained a staple at the Opry and a regular on various country and western variety programs as you probably saw at the top of the page. Even prior to signing with Starday Records, Stringbean was doing well enough to afford a spiffy looking new Cadillac (that he replaced every year with a newer Cadillac). Those who spent time around Bean knew that he was always carrying large amounts of cash with him, stashed in the front pocket of his overalls, his off-stage uniform. He often made a point of letting people know about it as he proudly puffed on his pipe.
His inclination to act the comedian made him a natural when television producer Sam Lovullo started casting the new comedy program Hee Haw. He fit in perfectly with other southern weirdos like Junior Samples, another freak with a worn out face and bizarre physique. Stringbean enjoyed a nice television salary from Hee Haw, but chose to live modestly in an old cabin in the woods north of Nashville with his wife. He held dear many of the lessons he learned from the depression years, including the concept of never trusting the banks. Stringbean continued stashing cash in his clothes and in a safety deposit box of his own making within the confines of his home. Many of his friends felt it foolish and pleaded with him to open a bank account for his own safety.
Saturday, November 10th, 1973, Stringbean performed once again on WSM's Grand Ole Opry Hour. That evening while he performed, two men drove up to his cabin. Obviously aware that he was performing live that minute, they broke into his home, and turned on the radio. They ransacked the place looking for money, listening to their victim singing on the radio all the while, confident that they wouldn't have to worry about him returning home anytime soon. However, when they failed to find any cash, it resulted in the crooks spending more time than intended in the residence. Stringbean returned home with his wife Estelle while the thieves were still inside his house. He, presumably, heard noises from inside his home since he entered with a handgun drawn. He instructed his wife to stay in the car. A struggle ensued and Stringbean was shot. Estelle got out of the vehicle, terrified. She was chased down the driveway and assassinated. The men left without any money - just a chainsaw, a pillowcase and some guns.
Three thousand dollars in cash remained in the bib of Stringbean's overalls. Two thousand dollars remained in Estelle's pockets, as she lay lifeless in the grass. Grandpa Jones discovered their bodies the next morning.
Hysteria and paranoia rightly gripped the Hee Haw stars and most of the Nashville community. The Grand Ole Opry had been running a "tour of the country stars' homes" bus tour. After the double murder, most of the stars on the route requested that their location of residence no longer be advertised. Police obtained some leads, not because of any clues left at the scene of the crime, but because the two killers were full of bravado and were heard bragging around town. Within two months John and Doug Brown were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Even after they were arrested, pleading their innocence in the courts, they couldn't help but brag on the streets.
Doug Brown contacted The Nashville Banner and casually confessed everything about the murder to a journalist. The interview resulted in new evidence after Brown told the paper where he had ditched a bag full of guns. However, Larry Brinton, the man writing the story, wasn't about to contact the police before his scoop was published. Instead, the journalist headed to the pond where he had been told the bag was dumped. Digging through the swamp and muck, Brinton exhumed the evidence he needed in order to ensure his story's credibility. Coincidentally, John Brown had confessed the same information to police interrogators a couple hours later. The day after the journalist had recovered the bag, police were up to their waists digging through the pond looking for it. The newspaper man watched the police search for over six hours, looking for the evidence that Brinton had in the trunk of his car just a few feet away. So valued was his scoop, he said nothing to the police as he waited for the next edition of his paper to hit the stands. Then, and only then, would he let the fuzz know.
Grandpa Jones was just one of several people to testify at the murder trial. The case was uncontroversial with few surprises now that the accused had both made confessions outside of court. They were sentenced to ninety-nine years apiece for first degree murder. Doug Brown died in prison at the age of fifty-three in 2003. John Brown is up for parole in 2008.
In 1996, a man rented the old cabin that Stringbean and his wife had called home. While sitting next to the fireplace, he noticed pieces of paper flying in from behind the stone work. Shards of the stuff flooded the living room. It was the mere residue remaining of what had once been tens of thousands of dollars, the hidden stash of money the killers had been looking for, the Stringbean fortune that never entered a bank. Nevertheless, after twenty-two years of sitting buried inside the walls, the money had rotted and decayed and been rendered useless thanks to the appetites of mice.
Jackson County, Kentucky now hosts the annual Stringbean Memorial Bluegrass Festival (it happens this week) at the recently christened Stringbean Memorial Music Park. The park is even home to a Stringbean statue that pigeons use to demonstrate their hatred for country music.
THE STRINGBEAN A/V CLUB:
The A&E Network, a channel that would be lost for program ideas were it not for America's high murder rate, profiled the Stringbean murder case on its show City Confidential a few years back. You can now view the whole program with Paul Winfield's ominous narration on YouTube. Check out part one, part two, part three and part four. It includes Hee Haw cast member Lulu Roman's revelation, "I was heavy into psychedelic drugs at the time, okay?" She was booted from Hee Haw in 1971 for drug use. NOTE: The A&E Documentary has, since the time this article was written, been removed. I leave the dead links here in the off-chance the clips re-appear.
16 Stringbean songs can be downloaded on this weird website that seems to have an unnerving Lou Dobbs-esque kinda mystique.
If you can't bring yourself to spend time on that site after seeing the scary insignia that greets you, there are Stringbean songs, pictures and various cool stuff at these two myspace pages both devoted to Mr. Stringbean, Here and here.