Scarecrow: The Music and Murder of Stringbean Akeman
Wake up, wake up little Betty
What makes you sleep so sound
When the highway robbers are a-comin’
They’ll tear your playhouse down
The little cabin in Ridgetop, Tennessee hadn’t held a soul in over twenty years. The crime scene chalk and blood were wiped away and the cabin shuttered for some time.
The man renting the place went to light a fire in the large fireplace. Small bits of paper escaped from its mouth, softly falling from the brick façade like volcanic ash in the still cabin air. It was money. Tens of thousands of dollars floating in worthless portions, gathered gently on the cabin floor.
How Sweet It Is
David “Stringbean” Akeman fashioned his first banjo from a shoebox and a piece of thread. He was born in 1916 in Annville, Kentucky. They were so poor his mother would give him rocks to throw at birds, and, if his arm was good, they’d have boiled fowl for supper. When he was 12, he traded two bantam chickens for his first real banjo.
He would make his name – and his fortune – playing novelty songs in the tradition of the banjo-playing comedians of the Grand Ole Opry.
But String could pick.
Akeman won a local talent show where he earned the nickname he would carry the rest of his life. Unable to remember the lanky 6’5 banjo player’s name, the MC called him onto the stage, “Come here Stringbean and play us a tune.”
Shortly thereafter, Stringbean landed his first gig in Bill Monroe’s band. He played in the Blue Grass Boys from 1943-45, and his old-timey, “clawhammer” style of banjo picking can be heard on Monroe’s records from this period. Stringbean was replaced by a young picker named Earl Scruggs, who revolutionized the way the otherwise-primitive instrument was played. With his rolling, three-finger picking approach, Earl Scruggs sits alongside Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix as a musician who transformed the approach and limitations of his instrument. With Scruggs in the band, Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys forged a high-energy modernism within their traditional music that ushered in a new era.
Stringbean and his clawhammer were immediately rendered old fashioned. That suited String just fine. He married Estelle, the woman who would be his life’s companion, the year he left Monroe’s band. The following year, in 1946, he befriended Grandpa Jones, another banjo playing comedian who started playing the Grand Ole Opry that same year. Grandpa and String shared an appreciation for the old-time songs and a love of hunting, fishing and simple country life. String and Estelle and Grandpa and his wife Ramona would become lifelong friends.
By this time String had begun to develop his comedian persona. He wore a long nightshirt tucked into pants that were too short and tied with a belt around his knees, accentuating his long frame and giving off the appearance of a man with too-short legs and a too-long trunk. It was a riff on a costume by an old-timey comedian named Slim Miller. His iconic costume is a cultural anomaly – simultaneously old-fashioned and ahead of its time.
Uncle Dave Macon was among the Grand Ole Opry’s first superstars. Born in 1870, Macon was a man from another time, even as he dominated the early 20th century Opry radio broadcasts. He brought the music and the showmanship of the 19th century into the beginnings of the country music industry. Macon grew up in the vaudeville school, with his stage costume and boisterous performances of old-timey songs, interspersed with comedy.
Stringbean was the natural heir to this style of performance and Macon took him under his wing. The elder performer brought the younger comedian into the Opry and even gave String one of his cherished banjos.
When Macon died in 1952, Stringbean took his slot on the Opry and remained a popular presence on the radio show throughout the decade, although he didn’t make his own studio recordings until the early 1960s. Even back then, he was already dedicating songs to “all the old-timers.”
The string of albums he made for the Starday label in the 1960s captures Stringbean at his finest. He blazes his way through his repertoire of old-time traditional songs like “John Henry” and “Ida Red,” humorous novelty songs such as “I'm The Man Who Rode The Mule Around The World” and “Herdin' Cattle (In An Air Conditioned Cadillac)” and Southern Gothic ballads like “Wake Up Little Betty” and “Short Life and Trouble.”
The album cover to 1963’s A Salute To Uncle Dave Macon captures the very essence of Stringbean: he sits, sans costume, in his favorite chair by his beloved fireplace, a banjo in his hands and a pipe dangling from his mouth. Anyone looking at this album was, perhaps unknowingly, afforded a glimpse into Stringbean’s private world. It is entirely possible his cash savings are within the frame, concealed behind the bricks or paneled wood walls.
While he remained a popular Opry attraction during this time, Stringbean was already a link to country music’s past.
Ray Price had forever changed the foundation of country music with his 4/4 shuffle. Buck Owens was shattering the sonics of country music with his blaring West Coast Telecaster riffs. Eddy Arnold started donning black-tie tuxedos for his album jackets.
The era of vaudeville entertainers like Uncle Dave Macon was gone. Yet Stringbean was there every Saturday night bringing down the house at the deteriorating Ryman, filling the hallowed hall with the spirit of the past, blazing ahead through the 1960s without any indication that he had noticed a single change. Stringbean was relentlessly true to himself. It was all he knew.
With Stringbean, what you saw was what you got. Other than the costume, there was no difference between the man on stage and the man in real life. Off-stage, String wore simple overalls, where he kept a large roll concealed in the bib pocket. Stringbean’s upbringing in the abject poverty of the Great Depression conditioned him with two incompatible impulses that would ultimately bring about his demise: he felt the need to let others know he had made a success of himself by flashing his roll, and he openly distrusted banks.
Stringbean was not a showoff or a braggart. He and Estelle lived a life of simple modesty. They lived in a small cabin off of Baker Station Road with outdoor plumbing and no heat. (A larger house on the property with central heating sat empty, as the Akemans preferred the smaller, simpler structure.) Stringbean loved his fireplace, where he would sit in the mornings and evenings, puffing his pipe, picking a little, drinking strong coffee or sometimes sipping homemade elderberry wine he got in Germantown. In the afternoons he would hunt or fish, chop wood or gather ginseng, “a herb, like.” His only modern comfort in the cabin was a color television set.
But he allowed himself one luxury, mostly for appearances to and from gigs – he bought a brand new Cadillac every year. Stringbean never learned how to drive, so Estelle would chauffer him to road gigs and the 30 minutes each way from their cabin north of Nashville to the Ryman Auditorium downtown for the Opry on Saturday nights.
Ironically, Stringbean’s biggest commercial success came in the midst of the counter-culture and from the unlikely medium of modern television. Hee Haw was a further contradiction in an already confusing and changing world. Debuting in 1969, it made huge stars of Buck Owens and Roy Clark, while almost costing country music its legacy. To this day, Roy Clark is more known as the cornball co-host of Hee Haw rather than as the brilliant multi-instrumentalist whose near-impossible guitar runs graced Wanda Jackson’s most exciting records, among others, and who recorded a string of serious solo albums. Buck Owens fronted the greatest band in country music in the 1960’s and recorded a catalog of timeless records before Hee Haw overshadowed his true legacy.
A country music variety show based on the Laugh In format of quick cut-away gags, Hee Haw did little to fight the cornball hillbilly stereotype from which many in country music had worked hard to break free. In many ways it set back the progress already made by serious artists like Ray Price, Marty Robbins and Tammy Wynette who had worked to push beyond country’s hayseed image, or artists like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard who wore their country roots unashamedly on their sleeve, yet presented their music with a depth that gave it dignity. Hee Haw reduced the genre to a caricature.
But at the same time, the corny antics of the show were rooted in a real tradition. String's comedy was a natural fit for the show, with his "letter from home" bits or deadpanning one-liners as the scarecrow in the cornfield. Hee Haw provided a platform for the old-timey performers who were left behind in the modern world as relics from a bygone age. For performers like Stringbean and Grandpa Jones, struggling to find relevance in the early 1970s, Hee Haw was a steady gig. And a well-paying one.
Just as Stringbean bridged the 19th century vaudeville of Uncle Dave Macon and the old-time Opry traditions with the counter-culture era, his brutal murder served as a harsh cutting off point, signifying the end of the small and accessible Nashville country music community and ushering in the era of security cameras, big venues, and big business.
The year after he and Estelle were killed, the Opry moved from the sacred Ryman to the modern Opryland complex across the Cumberland, out in the suburbs. The Ryman, built by a riverboat captain in 1892, was falling apart. Lower Broad, once the spiritual center of the country music industry in Nashville, was slipping into increasing seediness. The Opry, always a family friendly show, found their audience becoming weary of venturing the downtown streets lined with pawn shops, peep shows and honky tonks and crawling with winos and prostitutes and country music casualties. When the Opry pulled up stakes, they left behind a shell of a city already in decline. When Stringbean was laid into the ground, so too was a way of life in Nashville never to return.
Wake up, wake up little Betty
And go get my me gun
Well I ain’t no man for trouble
But I’ll die before I’ll run
Despite the changing times and the coming storm, Nashville remained a small town in the early 1970s. A woman who worked for Stringbean’s booking agency knew of the Opry star’s penchant for keeping his savings in his cabin. She innocuously let that fact slip to her husband, Charlie Brown. He got an idea. He told his brother Doug and cousin John about Stringbean’s fortune. They started devising a scheme to take it.
The Brown boys were lowlifes who hovered around Dickerson Road in East Nashville, one of the saddest stretches of road in the country, then and now. On Dickerson Road, ladies of the night are out in the middle of the afternoon, toothless, haggard, sunken eyed. Desperate pieces of human debris float through the used tire yards and liquor stores and trailer parks of the desolate artery. If you follow Dickerson north long enough out of town, it cuts clear through Ridgetop, intersecting at Baker Station Road.
When the Browns decided one November night to head north on Dickerson, they started a collision course that would bring two worlds crashing together. Much as Charles Manson ended the spirit of 1960s Los Angeles, and in turn the way celebrities lived and gathered, so too would Doug and John Brown shatter Nashville’s small town innocence and forever change the way people in Music City, especially the country music stars, lived.
The Paths of Sin
The Ryman’s cramped backstage area was a buzz on the night of Saturday, November 10, 1973. Opry stars came and went, changing in and out of their elaborately sequined costumes, rushing onstage for a couple numbers and back off just as quickly, gathering around “the table” to pick and cut-up with each other in between sets.
Grandpa Jones and Stringbean talked about the bird hunting trip they were embarking on in the morning. Estelle and Oscar Sullivan’s wife (of comedy duo Lonzo and Oscar) talked about rising crime in the city. “You never know when someone might knock you in the head or something just for your money,” Estelle lamented. This wasn’t the first time Estelle had expressed such concern. She occasionally confided in friends her unease over her husband’s habit of keeping his significant savings hidden in their cabin, rather than in a bank. Friends had often warned Stringbean that he shouldn’t go around flashing his roll.
Stringbean was scheduled for both shows that night. At 7:30 he came out and led the enthusiastic packed house in a sing along with the standard “Y’all Come,” with its opening line, “When you live in the country, everybody is your neighbor.”
“I had to bring him back for an encore,” host Tex Ritter recalled, “A lot of young people were screaming.” Thanks to Hee Haw, Stringbean was a hit with the college crowd.
One local reporter described the scene of what should have been just another Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry, but which would turn out to be Stringbean’s last:
From the right side of the stage, he began his goofy shuffle of his feet as he walked to the microphone, moving his legs only from the knees downward. In the audience, the fans screamed and flash bulbs popped. And when the cheers subsided, Stringbean’s adam’s apple started jumping up and down and he let out his standard opening line: ‘How sweet it is!’…Stringbean reached for his old gray hat with the turned-up brim, and somewhat majestically, but very mockingly, tipped it to the audience.
When he came back out for the second show, he unknowingly sang from the Opry stage for the last time: "Going To The Grand Ole Opry (To Make Myself A Name)." But that wasn’t the last song he would sing. Backstage he pulled his guitar player Curt Gibson aside and together they quickly ran through a number Stringbean wanted to play at next week’s show. The final song Stringbean sang, mere hours before he was viciously slain, was the old hymn, “Lord, I’m Coming Home.”
With that, String zipped his banjo case, changed into his overalls, placed his stage costume in his gig bag, where he kept a .22 pistol, and he and Estelle got in the Cadillac and headed for home.
The killers were listening. They tuned into WSM’s Opry broadcast on Stringbean’s small RCA Victor AM radio as they ransacked the cabin looking for his stash. The way the Brown boys figured, this way they’d know when Stringbean was done with the second show and that would give them at least a 30 minute warning to clear out. But something had gone wrong. They couldn’t find any money. Only some papers and uncashed checks. And guns.
So they changed the plan. They reasoned that Stringbean must have his cash on his person. Instead of making their get away as Stringbean’s final song came through the airwaves, the killers decided to lay in wait. With that decision, Stringbean was already as good as dead.
He sensed something wasn’t right. Estelle waited in the Cadillac while String approached the cabin. He set his banjo on the porch, pulled out his .22 and entered, getting the jump on Doug Brown. But before he knew what had happened, John Brown snuck up and shot the Opry star point blank. Stringbean’s long and lifeless corpse sank to the cabin floor. One of the killers took the pistol from his dead hand, his index finger frozen as if about to pull the trigger.
Hearing the shots, Estelle made a run for it. John Brown came out of the cabin in pursuit. The 23-year-old killer caught up with the 59-year-old woman quickly. Estelle fell and John Brown executed her point blank in the back of the head as she begged for mercy on her knees.
When John Brown came walking back to the cabin after slaughtering Estelle in the front yard, Doug said he was smiling.
The killers got away with a chainsaw, some guns and a mere $250 they pulled from Stringbean’s pocket. In their haste, they missed the $3,000 roll in Stringbean’s overall bib pocket – now stained with blood - and the $2,000 Estelle had pinned to her bra.
Having just executed the Opry star and his wife in cold blood, John Brown’s cruelty was not satisfied. He was frustrated he hadn’t found the hidden fortune he had come for. John Brown put Stringbean’s will (which he found earlier while tossing the cabin) and the murder weapon into Stringbean’s gig bag - which already contained the famous costume he wore hours earlier on the Opry stage - loaded it down with rocks and threw it in the lake. Stringbean had no kin. In his will he left everything to a charity for underprivileged children. John Brown figured if he couldn’t have Stringbean’s money, nobody would.
The next morning, Grandpa Jones came to collect Stringbean for their hunting trip. Grandpa knew something was wrong as he approached. “There was no smoke coming from the chimney. The first thing String did every morning when he got up was light a fire in the fireplace.”
He saw Estelle first, lying lifeless in the wet grass. String’s banjo case sat on the porch. Inside, he found his friend facedown on the cabin floor. The radio was playing low, still tuned to WSM. It had played through the night.
The aftermath of the murder of Stringbean and Estelle Akeman shook the entire city of Nashville. The senseless brutality coupled with the victims’ celebrity made for a sensational media frenzy, which in turn fostered a climate of paranoia. John Brown just couldn’t help himself. Even though the mission had been a failure – they never found any money – he couldn’t fight the compulsion to brag. Every day the papers were full of speculation as to his identity and motives. He had killed an Opry star.
The police fielded hundreds of tips, mostly from lonely, emotionally unbalanced people. But a couple solid leads came through and they actively worked with an informant who was John Brown’s coworker. Eventually, they were able to locate and identify the chainsaw, and then the guns. A lead detective visited Grandpa Jones at his house one morning to see if he could identify Stringbean’s recovered guns. Grandpa and Ramona invited the detective to join them for a breakfast of cornbread and molasses. Grandpa identified String’s shotgun immediately, “I mounted that sight on it and sawed the barrel off.”
The Browns were arrested. Charlie Brown, who had come up with the idea of the robbery but had not taken part in it, made a deal and his charges were dropped in exchange for worthless information. John and Doug Brown stood trial.
The jury retired in late afternoon and took five hours to reach a guilty verdict. John and Doug Brown were sentenced to the maximum penalty under Tennessee law: two consecutive 99-year sentences a piece. The trial ended on November 9, 1974 at 10:30pm, exactly 365 days – almost to the hour – from the sinister events at the little cabin in Ridgetop.
Well the last time I saw little Betty
Was in the hills of Tennessee
She had a pistol in her hand
And a banjo on her knee
Stringbean was not an artist. Not in the way Hank Williams or Ernest Tubb or Bill Monroe were artists. He broke no new ground, he explored no uncharted territory. He seemed utterly disinterested in such things. He steadfastly refused to reinvent himself or to absorb influences beyond the traditional music he played from the first time he picked his two-chicken banjo. But that is not a criticism. He was a conduit to an extinct piece of Americana.
Neither is it appropriate to suggest his legacy is dependent on his murder. The music holds up. His simple songs belie a proficiency and a diversity of styles. Had Stringbean lived to slip away without ceremony from natural causes, his place in country music history would be secure. He sits rightfully in the line that starts with the 19th century influences of Uncle Dave Macon and continues through the early Opry string bands, comedians like Grandpa Jones and beyond into the 21st century with the modern string band revivalists like Old Crow Medicine Show, as well as contemporary banjo-playing comedians like Mike Snider, Steve Martin and Ed Helms.
But at the same time, his murder is more than an interesting footnote. It is not what defines his legacy, but it did define an era and a city.
Doug Brown died in prison in 2003, effectively serving out his sentence. Each time John Brown came up for parole, members of the Grand Ole Opry family, including many stars, spoke against the cold blooded killer who had slain their friend and, in turn, their way of life. Parole was denied each time. The Tennessee Board of Parole eventually decided that John Brown had paid his debt to society and in 2014 he was released from prison. He was set loose again in the city that had changed over the preceding 40 years such that he would hardly recognize it, yet which is very much a city of his making.
While the Manson comparisons are valid – especially in the aftermath that reverberated throughout the showbiz community – the motives and failures of the killers and the simple, modest way the Akemans lived, coupled with the utter pointlessness of their execution, makes their murder more akin to that of the Kansas Clutters than Sharon Tate.
We know Stringbean had a substantial savings and we know he kept it in cash in the cabin. Estelle told friends at one point he had it hidden behind the refrigerator. It was a consistent source of worry for her. The story of Stringbean’s fortune, so it is told, has it that the cash the killers never found hidden in the fireplace was slowly chewed and shredded by mice, withered over the decades - as the original Opry stars and their music faded one by one in the changing city - until it was unrecognizable and valueless.
Grandpa Jones eulogized his recently departed friend in an uncharacteristically subdued Hee Haw segment: “His name was just plain old Stringbean. He was a legend in country music as well as the Grand Ole Opry where he performed every week. He was more than a friend to me, he was like a brother.”
Grandpa then summed up his friend in one succinct yet ambiguous statement: “String was a funny man.”
Hee Haw had shot the following season before the killings and had full episodes in the can. For months after his murder, Stringbean appeared each week on television in living color as if a ghost.
Stringbean had no delusions of grandeur. He was a simple man and a gifted entertainer. He was a custodian of a musical tradition and a way of life slipping away even before he bled into the Tennessee hills - guarding it by his mere presence, defenseless against birds of prey.
A scarecrow in the cornfield.
Originally written for humorinamerica.com on March 10, 2015.