Leroy Troy and Lester Armistead talk about Stringbean and Estelle Akeman, sitting in the Akemans' old cabin
Editor's note: This story was originally published on Oct. 15, 2014.
On Nov. 10, 1973, Tex Ritter stood on the Ryman Auditorium stage and brought David "Stringbean" Akeman to the "Grand Ole Opry."
"Stringbean, like Grandpa Jones, since the 'Hee Haw' shows is playing a lot of colleges," Ritter said, "he's playing all over the country, and he doesn't work for his old price anymore. Give a hand to Stringbean!"
And they did, and the scarecrow-looking banjo player shuffled his way into view of the Ryman crowd. He told a joke about informing a curious ticket-holder that he was part of the show and the woman responding, "Lord help the other part." Then he said, "Let's have a sing-along!"
And they did, with Stringbean's voice at the forefront.
"When you live out in the country, everybody is your neighbor, on this one thing you can rely," he sang.
And perhaps you could. But it hasn't been that way in Middle Tennessee for 40 years. On the chilled morning of Nov. 11, 1973, Stringbean Akeman, 57, and his wife, Estelle, 59, were found murdered on their Goodlettsville property, out in the country. The killings were cause for grieving, anger and paranoia and marked the end of country music's innocent era.
"It was a subculture where everyone dealt in handshakes, promises and word-of-mouth with no fear of betrayal," says Steve Gibson, whose father, Curt Gibson, performed with Stringbean that final night at the "Opry." "The best qualities of any small town really defined Nashville as Music City, and with the violent, brutal murders of Stringbean and Estelle, everyone had to rethink all that. We started looking over our shoulders and wondering what was happening."
Earlier that year, Stringbean and Estelle Akeman had tried unsuccessfully to convince Gibson's family to move to the farmhouse next to the Akemans' little cabin in Goodlettsville, near Ridgetop, 20 miles north of Nashville.
"They told us how safe and serene it was," said Gibson, who was 13 at the time. "We visited the place, and Estelle told my mother, 'We could leave a bucket of money on our front porch and be gone on tour all summer, come back, and it'd still be here.' She told my mother, 'We're so happy here, we want to live in this little cabin 'till the day we die.' "
The tiny cabin was room enough for the Akemans, who were comfortable in each other's presence and who shared enthusiasms for hunting, fishing and country life. Stringbean Akeman never learned to drive, and Estelle Akeman ferried him to tour dates, the "Opry" and syndicated television show "Hee Haw" in the couple's one extravagance: Each year, Stringbean Akeman bought a brand new Cadillac, always paying in cash.
"All their married life they were close together," Roy Acuff told WSM radio in 1973, in the days after the murder. "They went in their graves together, bless their hearts. I just hope that some way, that they know this."
"On Ridgetop, Tennessee in 1973, the Brown boys killed Stringbean and Estelle
The reason for it all was in the bib of his overalls
At least that's what the Brown boys would tell"
— "The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle"
Sam Bush, Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson
Stringbean Akeman was born on the Fourth of July 1916 in the green hills of Jackson County, Ky. He learned to play banjo as a teenager and joined "Opry" star Bill Monroe's band in 1943, impressing Monroe with his baseball skills as much as with his banjo: Monroe's band members were required to play hardball as his "Blue Grass Boys" drummed up interest on tour by playing games against locals.
Stringbean Akeman's style of banjo playing is now viewed as primitive, as his Blue Grass Boys successor, Earl Scruggs, brought a three-fingered style that became the basis for the banjo's modern era. But String remained popular with audiences, cheered for his traditional banjo work, for his delivery of old-timey country songs and for the folksy humor he often showcased on "Hee Haw."
To his fans, Stringbean Akeman seemed pleasant, gangly and peculiar, which is how his friends thought of him as well.
He sang songs such as "I'm the Man That Rode the Mule Around the World" and "How Many Biscuits Can You Eat," while wearing baggy shirts tucked into tiny pants, belted just above the knees. (Little Jimmy Dickens gave him his first such pair of pants.)
He used apple vinegar as shaving lotion and rubbing alcohol as deodorant. He borrowed a Jackie Gleason expression — "How sweet it is!" — and used it as his signature line, explaining that if it was good enough for Gleason, it was good enough for him, and also that his fans didn't know who Gleason was.
He'd slaughter, smoke and eat pigs but wouldn't touch anything from a cow. No beef, no dairy. He made extra money hunting wild ginseng and selling it to the Chinese.
And, as many people knew, he kept wads of $100 bills in his overalls.
"String flashed money, mostly to his friends," says old-time musician Lester Armistead, who was Stringbean Akeman's friend and neighbor. "He was so happy that he was making a living playing a banjo and that he got to live on a farm, doing what he wanted."
He called his instrument "the five," as in "the five-string banjo." Asked whether he had medical insurance, he'd say, "Naw, just me and the five."
"He was uniquely 'String,' " said Don Light, who booked Akeman on college and festival dates. "One time, some of the 'Opry' performers were trying to get him to sign a petition About how the people on the 'Opry' weren't getting paid enough. He was in the alley outside the Ryman, waiting for Estelle to bring the Cadillac around, and they were trying to get him to sign the petition. She drove up and popped the trunk, and he said, 'Boys, all I can tell you is, when I got here, I's a'walkin'. Then he got in the passenger side and went to Goodlettsville."
Akeman married the former Estelle Stanfill, a Maury County native, in 1945, the year he left Monroe's band. The couple's best friends were fellow banjo player Grandpa Jones and Jones' wife, fiddler and singer Ramona Jones.
"They were such gentle people, both of them," Ramona Jones said. "Sweet, gentle people that loved nature and spent most of their free time fishing on a creek. We bought a farm together in 1955. We lived in the white house that was closer to Baker Road, and Stringbean and Estelle lived in the small cabin just behind that house. They said they should take the small one because we had children and they didn't."
In the late 1950s, the Jones family moved to the Washington, D.C., area and the Akemans took possession of the white house, though they continued to live in the cabin. Within a year, the Joneses returned to Middle Tennessee, and they bought a house down the road from the old farm.
Interviewed for a Nov. 17, 1973, WSM-AM radio special hosted by Al Voeks, Grandpa Jones said of the Akemans, "They were just about as happy a couple as I'd ever seen. I think they suited each other the best of any two people I've ever seen."
Bluegrass Hall of Famer Mac Wiseman was also close to the Akemans.
"We'd sit and visit at that little cabin, like kin folks do," says Wiseman, 88. "I remember sitting on the porch of their cabin, dangling my feet on the ground. And we'd ride in the car together, traveling to appearances. He wore funny clothes onstage, but in the car he'd always be dressed nicely, with a sport coat and a pair of trousers. I remember those nice trousers, over them long, slithered legs. He didn't pay for those nice clothes, though. String and Estelle would squirrel hunt, and they'd get so many squirrels that they'd get tired of eating them. ("Opry" star) George Morgan didn't hunt, and he'd trade String clothes for squirrels."

Stringbean's last song

The night of Stringbean Akeman's final "Opry" appearance, he sang "Y'all Come" and "Hillbilly Fever" and then he, Estelle and the Jones family — Grandpa, Ramona and children Mark and Alisa — sat backstage for a while and talked about the pending week's plans. Stringbean and Grandpa were going to Virginia on a weeklong hunting trip, so their wives planned to gather for a special dinner on Tuesday evening: String's aversion to red meat was such that he couldn't stand the smell of it, so this was a rare chance for Estelle Akeman to have a steak.
Stringbean Akeman's second "Opry" slot of the night came at 10:18 p.m., and while waiting to go onstage he gave an interview to freelance writer Stacy Harris, talking about the popularity of "Hee Haw" and about the origin of his nickname: "Ace Martin, up in Lexington, Ky. — when I first started in radio — he couldn't remember my name. He said, 'Come here Stringbean and play us a tune,' and that's the way it started." That interview would run in the Nashville Banner on Nov. 12, underneath bold print headlines about the murder.
Akeman and Curt Gibson reappeared on the Ryman stage to perform "Going To The Grand Ole Opry (To Make Myself A Name)" and "Hot Corn, Cold Corn." After walking off to applause, Akeman and Gibson rehearsed a song for the next week's "Opry."
"They went back there and sang one called 'Lord, I'm Coming Home,' Steve Gibson says. "That was the last song String ever sang, and it was a rehearsal."
The last lines of the last song Akeman sang are "Coming home, coming home, never more to roam/ Open wide thine arms of love, Lord, I'm coming home."
Stringbean Akeman then changed into his bib overalls, into which his wife had sewn an inside pocket where he was carrying $3,182 in cash. He put his stage outfit into a bag that held various items, including a .22 caliber pistol. Then he and Estelle Akeman — who herself was carrying $2,150 in her bra — got in their new Cadillac and wound their way north to Goodlettsville.
As they began their drive, Bobby Bare was on the Ryman stage, singing "Detroit City." The late ride home took about a half-hour, and as they turned left into their winding driveway off Baker Station Road, Sam McGee was on the "Opry," singing "Worry, Worry Blues."
In the coming minutes, Billy Grammer would sing "What A Friend," Marty Robbins would sing "I Walk Alone," and Stringbean Akeman and his wife would die.

No mercy

As the Cadillac's lights shone on his porch, Stringbean Akeman realized something was askew. He removed the .22 from his bag and likely told his wife to wait in the car. He walked alone to his door, beyond which 23-year-old cousins John Brown, with a stocking over his head, and Doug Brown, wearing a Halloween mask, were hiding.
Stringbean Akeman opened the front door and, according to Doug Brown's court testimony, hesitated for several minutes. Perhaps he was taking in the scene: The Brown men had torn the cabin apart, looking for money that they didn't find. They figured that if the money wasn't at the house, it must be on Stringbean Akeman — they'd heard about the way he flashed cash — and so they'd waited for him to come home.
Then Stringbean entered, holding the gun in his outstretched right hand. He saw Doug Brown to his right and began firing shots. Had he not been holding the gun, perhaps the cousins would not have killed him. Their fuzzy, drug-and-drink-addled plan was robbery, not murder, but they were both armed. They found shotguns at the cabin, and John Brown was holding a pistol. He used the pistol to kill Stringbean Akeman.
The gangly "Opry" star fell, arms outstretched, near the fireplace. Estelle Akeman had moved toward the house, then ran away, toward Baker Station Road, screaming for mercy. She fell to her knees, pleading. John Brown shot her in the back of the head, and she lay crumpled in the grass.
The Browns searched quickly over the bodies — too quickly to find the thousands of dollars the Akemans had hidden in pockets and underwear, though they did get $250 from Stringbean Akeman's front overall pocket. They took the performer's bags and his wife's purse and some guns, and rode away in the station wagon that the Akemans kept for non-business transportation.
The next morning, before 7 a.m., Grandpa Jones gathered and packed his hunting gear and drove two miles to the Akemans' cabin. As he crested a hill that cold November morning, he noticed there was no smoke coming from the cabin's chimney. Driving to the house, he saw Estelle Akeman's body, next to a hickory tree. In woozy shock, he walked toward the house, saw Stringbean Akeman's banjo case on the front porch, entered the cabin and saw his body on the floor, in front of the cold fireplace.
The telephone wire had been cut, so Jones rushed back to his house, told his wife what had happened and called the police. Then, Grandpa and Ramona Jones returned to the crime scene. Ramona Jones noticed the white frost on Estelle Akeman's dark hair and noticed that Stringbean's radio was on, tuned to WSM: The Brown boys had listened to the "Opry" while they waited for the banjo man.
"For a year, I couldn't hardly talk about it," Ramona Jones said. "It was devastating. A sad time. A trying time. I don't think you ever get over something like that. Our lives were never the same after that."

'Loss of innocence'

The pastoral farm soon buzzed and bustled, as investigators, media, neighbors and "Opry" friends arrived to survey, console and comprehend.
"They were our very best friends and we like them so much," Grandpa Jones told Nashville Banner reporter Bill Hance. "I feel really sorry for the people who did it. I just can't understand why anyone would do such a thing."
Stringbean Akeman would have hated the noise and attention.
Television and radio stations and both daily Nashville newspapers provided exhaustive coverage of the hunt for the killers. Country stars pondered security options, and many of them became uncomfortable with providing the easy access that they had afforded fans. A week later, musician Jimmy Widener — who often played the "Opry" as Hank Snow's rhythm guitarist — was robbed, beaten and shot to death in a Nashville alley, and no one could pretend that the country music world was somehow immune to violence and horror.
Country stars now needed walls, security and protection beyond a pistol shoved into a battered old bag. Suddenly, things that had seemed normal for country musicians — like living in unsecured neighborhoods or drinking with fans and admirers at Tootsie's — seemed dangerous.
Nashville music had seen tragedy, like the 1963 plane crash that killed Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Randy Hughes. It had seen reckless waste, like the pills and booze-addled death of Hank Williams in 1953.
But until 1973, it had not known murder. And now, murder was accompanied by a frenzied and elongated publicity campaign, as the investigation and trial played out. Stringbean Akeman already had taped a year's worth of "Hee Haw" episodes, so he remained a contemporary television star even as prosecutors tried his killers.
"He was an awesome banjo player, and I loved to hear him sing," said Leroy Troy, an old-time banjo player who starred on "Hee Haw." "I was 7 when Stringbean died. I remember hearing about it on the radio, when we were driving back home from South Carolina. After that, I remember watching 'Hee Haw' and seeing String on it, and I didn't understand how he could be on the television and be dead."

Parole denied

The past 40 years have brought expansion and enrichment to Nashville. It is now a metropolis that String and Estelle Akeman would not recognize.
Their little cabin has gotten a couple of facelifts, but the property Mac Wiseman calls "a hallowed place" is still recognizable. Musicians Brian and Tiffany Buchanan bought the cabin this year, moving from East Nashville in part because of neighborhood worries: Concerned about rising crime, they moved to country music's most legendary crime scene.
They cook in the kitchen where Doug Brown hid as Stringbean Akeman opened the door, 40 years ago. On the mantle above the fireplace, they've placed Stringbean memorabilia, including an album cover that features Akeman sitting in front of that fireplace. They often explore Baker Station cave, accessible from their backyard: Stringbean Akeman used to hang hams in that cave. And, in a full-circle happenstance, Brian Buchanan doesn't drive; Tiffany Buchanan takes him to work in Nashville.
One of Stringbean and Estelle's killers, Doug Brown, died in 2003, ending his life sentence to prison. John Brown, who fired the pistol that killed Stringbean in a struggle and Estelle Akeman as she fled, is now 63.
The Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole has declined his requests for release four times, with the Akemans' friends from the "Opry" appearing at hearings to oppose his release. He is eligible for another hearing in 2017.
In the 1990s, some news organizations reported that $20,000 in severely deteriorated, unusable cash had been found behind a chimney brick in the Akemans' little cabin, but neighbors and researchers find this a dubious claim. In the months after the couple was murdered, police turned the cabin into an investigation headquarters, and they searched every inch of the place.
In 1974, Stringbean's sideman, Curt Gibson, went to work for Hank Snow, replacing slain guitarist Jimmy Widener. Murder cost Gibson one job and gained him another. With Snow, Gibson went to play at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary (Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison and San Quentin shows had been well-received, and other stars were doing similar concerts) and one of the Brown boys was assigned to carry sound equipment.
"When my dad found out who it was he said, 'I used to work for Stringbean, and he and I were close friends,' " Steve Gibson says. "He said, 'I want you to know that Stringbean was a very forgiving man. If I could say anything from him to you, it would be that he'd want you to do something good to help others.' "
Then Hank Snow found out that the Brown boys were in the audience and refused to go on with the show.
Forty years to the day of the killings, Stringbean and Estelle Akeman are remembered as people of simple kindnesses and endearing peculiarities. They are remembered for their disquieting final moments, but it is not those moments that define them. They were killed for greed and for meanness, by desperate people. But they themselves were contented people, secure and unworried.
"If you knew Stringbean, you had to love him," his "Hee Haw" co-star, the late Buck Owens, said in 1973. "He was at peace with himself, at peace with the world."
The murders of Stringbean and Estelle helped create a Nashville world with which they never could have been at peace. These were not modern people. Even 40 years ago, they were beautiful anachronisms. Their likes will not again be known.
Perhaps they rest in peace. Certainly, they lived in peace. Would that they had died that way.
Steve Gibson talks about the Stringbean murders. His father Curt played with Stringbean and practiced a song that they intended to play the next week on the Grand Ole Opry. The hymn "I'm Coming Home"