David "Stringbean" Akeman

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

David "Stringbean" Akeman
David 'Stringbean' Akeman.jpg
Background information
Birth nameDavid Akeman
Also known asStringbean
Born(1915-06-17)June 17, 1915
Annville, Kentucky, U.S.
DiedNovember 10, 1973(1973-11-10) (aged 58)
Ridgetop, Tennessee, U.S.
GenresOld-time, bluegrass, country, comedy
Occupation(s)Musician, comedian, baseball player
Instrument(s)Banjo, vocals
Years active1927–1973

David Akeman (June 17, 1915[1] – November 10, 1973)[2] better known as Stringbean (or String Bean), was an American singer-songwriter, musician, comedian, and semiprofessional baseball player[3] best known for his role as a main cast member on the hit television show Hee Haw and as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Akeman was well-known for his "old-fashioned" banjo-picking style, careful mix of comedy and music, and his memorable stage wardrobe (which consisted of a long nightshirt tucked into a pair of short blue jeans belted around his knees — giving him the comical appearance of a very tall man with stubby legs). Akeman and his wife were shot and murdered by burglars in their rural Tennessee home near Ridgetop in 1973.


Early life and career[edit]

Born in Annville, Jackson County, Kentucky, United States,[2] Akeman came from a musical family, including his father, James Akeman, who played the banjo at local dances.[4] He got his first banjo when he was 12 years old in exchange for a pair of prize bantam chickens.[5] Akeman began playing at local dances and gained a reputation as a musician, but the income was not enough to live on. He joined the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, building roads and planting trees.

Eventually, he entered a talent contest judged by Asa Martin. He won and was invited to join Martin's band. During an early appearance, Martin forgot Akeman's name and introduced him as "String Bean" because of his tall, thin build. Akeman used the nickname the rest of his career.[5]

Akeman originally was only a musician, but when another performer failed to show up one night, he was used as a singer and comic. From then on, Akeman did both comedy and music. He appeared on WLAP-AM in Lexington, Kentucky, and played with several groups in the late 1930s.[5]

Akeman also played semiprofessional baseball.[6] As a ballplayer, he met bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, who fielded with another semipro team. From 1943 to 1945, Akeman played banjo for Monroe's band, performing on recordings such as "Goodbye Old Pal". He also teamed with Willie Egbert Westbrook as String Beans and Cousin Wilbur, a comedy duo who appeared on the same bill as Monroe's band. When he left Monroe, he was replaced by Earl Scruggs, a banjoist with a very different style.[5]

In 1945, Akeman married Estell Stanfill.[5] The same year, he formed a comedy duet with Willie Egbert Westbrook,[5] and they were invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. The following year, Akeman began working with Grandpa Jones, another old-time banjo player and comedian.[5] Jones and Akeman worked together at the Opry and many years later on the Hee Haw television series.[5] They also became neighbors in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. Akeman became a protégé of Uncle Dave Macon, one of the biggest Opry stars. Near the end of his life, Macon gave Akeman one of his prized banjos.[citation needed]

Later life and career[edit]

Akeman, by now known only as Stringbean, was one of the Opry's major stars in the 1950s.[5] He adopted a stage costume that accentuated his height—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 had many antecedents, including Slim Miller, a onetime stage comedian said to be Akeman's inspiration.[5]

Akeman did not record as a solo artist until the early 1960s, when he was signed by the Starday label.[5] Akeman remained a celebrated performer of the old-fashioned banjo playing, "clawhammer" or "frailing". In addition to his skill as a clawhammer player, Akeman also frequently played two-finger banjo, using thumb and forefinger. Akeman is listed with Uncle Dave Macon, Grandpa Jones, and Ralph Stanley as the greatest old-time style banjo pickers.[citation needed]

Akeman kept his audience with his traditional playing and his mixture of comedy and song. He scored country-chart hits with "Chewing Gum" and "I Wonder Where Wanda Went".[5] Between 1962 and 1971, he recorded seven albums.[citation needed] The first, Old Time Pickin' & Grinnin' with Stringbean (1961), included folk songs (especially humorous animal songs), tall stories, and country jokes.

In 1969, Akeman and Grandpa Jones became cast members of a new television show entitled Hee Haw.[5] One of his regular routines was reading a "letter from home" to his friends. Asked about the latest letter, Stringbean would take it out, saying he carried it "right next to my heart". Not finding it in his overalls pocket, he would check all of his other pockets by patting them with his hands until he found the letter, usually in his hip pocket. He was also the scarecrow in a cornfield who would say one-liners before being shouted down by the crow on his shoulder. Hee Haw continued airing his taped segments following his death and his final episode was season five, episode 26, which aired on March 23, 1974.[7]


Akeman was modest and unassuming, and he enjoyed hunting and fishing. Accustomed to the hard times of the Great Depression, Akeman and his wife Estell lived frugally in a small cabin at 2308 Baker Road, near Ridgetop, Tennessee. Their only indulgences were a Cadillac and a color TV. Depression-era bank failures caused Akeman not to trust banks with his money.[5] Gossip around Nashville was that Akeman kept large amounts of cash on hand, though he was by no means wealthy by entertainment industry standards.

On Saturday night, November 10, 1973, Akeman and his wife returned home after he performed at the Grand Ole Opry. Both were shot dead shortly after their arrival. The killers had waited for hours. Their corpses were discovered the following morning by their neighbor, musician Louis "Grandpa" Jones.[5]

A police investigation resulted in the convictions of cousins John A. Brown and Marvin Douglas Brown, both 23 years old. They had ransacked the cabin, and killed Stringbean when he arrived. His wife shrieked when she saw her husband murdered. She begged for her life, but was shot as well. According to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, "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 (where Akeman's fellow cast member and friend Grandpa Jones testified, as he recognized one of the stolen firearms in the defendants' possession as a gift he had given Akeman), each defendant blamed the other for the homicides."[8] The killers took only a chainsaw and some firearms.

Marvin Douglas Brown fought his convictions in the appellate courts. On September 28, 1982, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial judge's order denying him a new trial.[9] Marvin Brown ultimately granted an exclusive interview to Larry Brinton of the Nashville Banner. He admitted his part in the burglary and murders, but insisted John Brown fired the fatal shots. As Marvin Brown, by his own admission, had committed burglary (a felony) that resulted in death, Brown was legally guilty of murder, regardless of who fired the shots, under Tennessee's felony murder rule.

Marvin Brown died of natural causes in 2003, at the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, in Petros, Tennessee, and is buried in the prison cemetery. John Brown was incarcerated in Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville. In July 2008, the Tennessee Parole Board deferred any parole for 36 months. He was again denied parole in July 2011. In 2014, John Brown was granted parole and released after serving 41 years of a 198-year sentence.[10][11]

The A&E cable television network profiled the case on a 1999 episode of its City Confidential series.

David and Estell Akeman are buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. During the remaining production of Hee Haw, the scarecrow was left as a memorial.[12]

Bluegrass artist Sam Bush recorded "The Ballad of Stringbean and Estell”, which tells the story of their murders, for his 2009 album, Circles Around Me. The song was written by Bush, Guy Clark, and Verlon Thompson, and was nominated by the IBMA for Song of the Year in 2011. [13]


  1. ^ "Kentucky Festival Marks Stringbean's 100th Birthday". Lex18.com. Archived from the original on May 18, 2018. Retrieved May 17, 2018.
  2. ^ a b Colin Larkin, ed. (1993). The Guinness Who's Who of Country Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. pp. 398/400. ISBN 0-85112-726-6.
  3. ^ Burchard, Jeremy (August 1, 2016). "The Rise and Fall of Stringbean Akeman, a Grand Ole Opry Legend". Wide Open Country. Retrieved July 18, 2018.
  4. ^ "David Akeman, AKA StringBean". Davidakeman.com. Retrieved August 10, 2021.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Colin Larkin, ed. (2002). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Fifties Music (Third ed.). Virgin Books. pp. 423/4. ISBN 1-85227-937-0.
  6. ^ Administrator (September 9, 2020). "Marc Hoover: The tragic death of David 'Stringbean' Akeman". The Clermont Sun. Retrieved March 29, 2022.
  7. ^ "Q: Which "Hee Haw" performer was killed during a robbery at his home? | TV Tabloid". decoy.tvpassport.com. Retrieved March 29, 2022.
  8. ^ Brown v. State, unpublished decision at 1991 WL 242928.
  9. ^ State v. Brown, 644 S.W.2d 418 (Tenn.Crim.App. 1992). On November 21, 1991, the same court denied his motion for post conviction relief. (State v. Brown, unpublished decision available at 1991 WL 24298)
  10. ^ "Man who killed Opry, 'Hee Haw' star Stringbean granted parole - WKRN News 2". Archived from the original on October 18, 2014. Retrieved October 15, 2014.
  11. ^ "Stringbean Akeman's killer free on parole". Tennessean.com. Retrieved May 17, 2018.
  12. ^ Resting Places: The Burial Sites of Over 14000 Famous Persons by Scott Wilson
  13. ^ "Sam Bush On Mountain Stage". Npr.org. Retrieved May 17, 2018.

Further reading[edit]

  • Jones, Louis M. "Grandpa", with Charles Wolfe. (1984). "Chapter Thirteen: String". In Everybody's Grandpa: Fifty Years Behind the Mike. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press. pp. 197–207.
  • Wolfe, Stacey. (1998). "Stringbean". In The Encyclopedia of Country Music. Paul Kingsbury, Editor. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 515.

External links[edit]