Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the murders of David "Stringbean" Akeman and his wife Estelle, and I remember it very clearly. It was one of those moments when two cultures came into violent collision, and, like when a warm front meets a cold front, bad things happened in Nashville that day in 1973.
Stringbean was a featured player on the Grand Ole Opry...a star, but not among the big stars such as Ernest Tubb or Hank Snow, back in the days when country music still sounded like country music. His shtick was wearing a goofy getup made from an old pair of "Little" Jimmy Dickens's jeans and an elongated shirt, making comic use of his lanky frame. And he played a banjo in the old style, strumming it in the fashion of those who invented the only purely American instrument. Here's an old clip that shows what he did so well.
He made a nice living on the Opry and playing concerts, and he and his wife lived outside Nashville on a farm where, as a sideline, he grew ginseng to sell to the Chinese. He did not drive, but bought a new Cadillac every year so Estelle could drive him to concerts and the radio show and his appearances on TV's "Hee Haw," which brought him to living rooms across the world. Stringbean was as country as country could be. He hung hams to smoke in a cave on his farm, but would not touch beef or any dairy product. According to a fascinating article in the Nashville Tennessean newspaper, String used apple cider vinegar as after shave and rubbing alcohol as deodorant. This was 40 years ago, and yet, in the ways that matter, he lived as others did 400 years ago.
One other thing about String - like many who lived through the Depression, he did not trust banks. The Opry and his concert bookers paid him in cash, and Estelle sewed a pocket inside his bib overalls where he hid his hundreds. She carried money in her bra.
I guess a guy who grew up on a dirt farm and then made a good living playing a "banjer" had reason to be proud, and Stringbean was known to flash his wad of bills around Nashville, a fact that came to the attention of 23-year-old cousins Marvin and John Brown, who, that Saturday night, went to the Akeman home and listened to the Opry on String's radio to hear his last performance at 10:18 PM. The songs were “Going To The Grand Ole Opry (To Make Myself A Name)” and “Hot Corn, Cold Corn.”
Then, with $3,182 in his overalls, and $2,150 in her bra, the Akemans went home to their fate. The Brown cousins waited in the house, String tried to fight them off, but he and Estelle were killed by their own shotgun - a gift from fellow Opry star Grandpa Jones, who went to pick them up for a planned hunting trip the next morning and found their bodies.
The Browns, predictably, blamed each other for the murders. One of them died in prison and the other is still locked up.
Two simple, country, plain people, who lived their lives as they wished and bothered no one, were killed by two young men who planned to steal their money rather than working for their own.
It's a story as old as time itself and as new as tomorrow.