(June 17, 1916–November 10, 1973), better known as Stringbean,
was an American country music banjo player and comedy musician
best known for his role on the hit television show, Hee Haw,
and as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Akeman and his wife were
murdered by burglars at their rural Tennessee home in 1973.
Born in Annville, Jackson County, Kentucky, Akeman came from a
musical family and was taught to play banjo by his father. He
acquired his first real banjo when he was 12 years old in
exchange for a pair of prize bantam chickens. He began playing
local dances and developing a reputation on the instrument, but
could not earn a living as a musician. Instead, Akeman worked
for the Depression-eraCivilian Conservation Corps, building
roads and planting trees.
Later he entered a talent contest that was being judged by
singer-guitarist-musical saw player Asa Martin, and won.
Afterward, he was invited to join Martin's band. During one
performance, Martin forgot Akeman's name and introduced him to
the crowd as "String Beans." With his tall, thin build, the
nickname stuck and he eventually was known by that moniker.
At first, Akeman only played banjo in the group, but when
another performer failed to turn up for a show, he was pressed
into service as a singer and comic, and the act caught on. From
that day forward, Akeman divided his time between comedy and
music. He also appeared on WLAP-AM in Lexington, Kentucky, and
played with various groups during the late 1930s.
During this time, Akeman also played semi-professional baseball.
It was as a ballplayer that he first came to the attention of
bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, who fielded a private semipro
team. Monroe eventually learned of Akeman's other talents and
from 1943 until 1945, Akeman played as banjoist for Monroe's
band, playing on such recordings as "Goodbye Old Pal". Akeman
also spent some of his time during this period teamed with
Willie Egbert Westbrook as String Beans and Cousin Wilbur, a
comedy duo who often worked on the same bill with Monroe's
outfit. Akeman left Monroe in 1945 and was replaced by Earl
Scruggs, a banjoist with a radically different technique.
In 1945, Akeman married Estelle Stanfill. That same year, he
teamed up with Lew Childre to form a comedy duet, and the two
were successful enough to be invited to perform on the Grand Ole
Opry. During 1946, Akeman also began working with Grandpa Jones,
a fellow old-time banjoist and comedian. Jones and Akeman
continued to work together on the Opry and later on the Hee
Haw television series. They also became neighbors near
Ridgetop, Tennessee. Akeman also became a protégé of Uncle Dave
Macon, one of the biggest Opry stars. Toward the end of his
life, Macon gave Akeman one of his banjos.
Akeman, known by this time only as Stringbean, was one of the
Opry's top stars throughout the 1950s. During this period, he
adopted a stage costume that comically accentuated his height,
consisting of a shirt with an exceptionally long waist and tail,
tucked into a pair of short blue jeans (from Little Jimmy
Dickens) belted around his knees. The costume made him look like
a very tall man with very short legs and helped contribute to
the illusion of Akeman towering over his fellow performers. This
kind of costume had many antecedents, including Slim Miller, a
onetime stage comedian who was said to be Akeman's direct
inspiration. The costume became synonymous with the Stringbean
persona known to his audience.
Stringbean did not begin recording as a solo artist until the
early 1960s, when he signed to the Starday label. By that time,
Earl Scruggs, Akeman's replacement in the Bill Monroe band, had
emerged as the premier figure in banjo playing, especially among
younger listeners, and Scruggs-style playing became the
predominant style for country and bluegrass banjoists. Akeman
and Jones remained as two of the most celebrated performers of
"old-time" banjo playing, also called "clawhammer" or "frailing."
Akeman's musicianship is still much admired by aficionados of
the old-time style. Akeman is listed along with Uncle Dave
Macon, Grandpa Jones, and Ralph Stanley, as among the great
old-time style banjoists.
Akeman still found an audience for his older style of playing
and his mixture of cornball comedy and song. He had
country-chart hits with "Chewing Gum" and "I Wonder Where Wanda
Went". He recorded seven albums between 1961 and 1972. The first
of those albums, Old Time Pickin' & Grinnin' with Stringbean
(1961), was representative of his milieu, containing folk songs
(especially humorous animal songs), tall stories, and jokes.
Akeman remained a star of the Grand Ole Opry for the rest of his
life. In 1969, Akeman, along with Jones, became founding members
of the cast of the television show Hee Haw. One of his
regular routines was to read a "letter from home" to his friends
(similar in style to American comedian “Charley Weaver”). When
asked about the latest letter, Stringbean would reach for it,
stating that he carried it right next to "his heart" (his upper
overalls pocket). Not finding it there, he would proceed to
quickly check all his other pockets, saying "heart" on each
check until he found the letter, usually in his hip pocket. He
was also known for being the scarecrow in the cornfield who
would shoot off one-liners before being shouted down by the prop
crow on his shoulder.
modest and unassuming person, Akeman enjoyed the simple life of
hunting and fishing. Accustomed to hard times during the Great
Depression of the 1930s, Akeman and his wife, Estelle, lived
frugally in a tiny cabin near Ridgetop, Tennessee—their only
indulgence, a Cadillac automobile. Depression-era bank failures
also inspired Akeman, like many others of his generation, to not
trust banks with their money. It was general gossip around
Nashville that Akeman usually kept significant amounts of cash
on hand, despite his not being terribly wealthy by entertainment
On a Saturday night in November 1973, the Akemans returned home
after performing a show at the Grand Ole Opry, and were shot
dead upon their arrival. Thieves had lain in wait for hours. The
Akemans' bodies were discovered the following morning by
neighbor and fellow performer Grandpa Jones (Louis Marshall
police investigation into the double homicide resulted in the
conviction of cousins John A. Brown and Marvin Douglas Brown,
both of whom were 23 years old at the time of the murders. At
trial, it was revealed that the two had ransacked the cabin and
then killed Stringbean. Estelle shrieked when she saw Stringbean
hit with the bullets. A few moments later, after begging for her
life, she was gunned down as well. The Tennessee Court of
Criminal Appeals described the scene, "Upon their return, Mr.
Akeman spotted the intruders in his home and evidently offered
some resistance. One of the Brown cousins fatally shot Mr.
Akeman, then pursued, shot and killed Mrs. Akeman. At their
trial, each defendant blamed the other for the homicides."
The thieves left with nothing more than a chain saw and some
guns. In 1996, 23 years after their murders, $20,000 in cash was
discovered behind a brick in the chimney of the Akemans' home.
The paper money had rotted to such an extent that it was not
usable. (the United States Consumer Price Index indicates that
the purchasing power of $20,000 in 1973 would be equivalent to
the purchasing power of some $98,565 in 2008.)
Marvin Douglas Brown fought his convictions in the Tennessee
appellate courts. On September 28, 1982, the Tennessee Court of
Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial judge's order denying a new
trial. Marvin Brown ultimately granted an exclusive interview to
Larry Brinton of the Nashville Banner. In the interview,
he admitted his participation in the burglary and murders, but
contended that John Brown fired the fatal shots. Since Brown, by
his own admission, committed burglary (a felony), and that
burglary resulted in death, Brown is guilty of murder,
regardless of who fired the fatal shots; see Murder (United
States law) regarding deaths during a felony.
Marvin Brown died of natural causes on January 8, 2003, at the
Brushy Mountain Prison, in Petros, Tennessee. He is buried in
the prison cemetery. John A. Brown remains incarcerated in a
Tennessee Special Needs Facility. In July 2008, the Tennessee
Parole Board deferred parole for 36 months. He is next eligible
for parole in July 2011. The A&E cable television network
profiled the case on a 2003 episode of its City Confidential
David and Estelle Akeman are buried in Forest Lawn Memorial
Gardens in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. During the run of Hee
Haw, after Stringbean's death, the scarecrow was left as a
Bluegrass artist Sam Bush recorded "The Ballad of Stringbean and
Estelle", which tells the tale of the murder on his 2009 album
Circles Around Me.