David Akeman, better known as “Stringbean,” was a beloved member of the country music community who found nationwide fame as a cast member of Hee Haw TV show. But long before television found him, Stringbean was a popular entertainer on the Grand Ole Opry, starting in the 1940s.
Scheduled for publication on May 23 is Taylor Hagood’s biography, Stringbean: The Life and Murder of a Country Legend (University of Illinois Press), relating the story that not only details the ill-fated musician’s lifetime achievements, but looks in depth at his tragic and violent death in 1973, at the age of 57, alongside that of his wife (Estelle), and its aftermath.
As far as bluegrass is concerned, Akeman joined the Blue Grass Boys late in 1942, becoming Bill Monroe’s first banjo player. He was replaced by Jim Andrews in 1945, but continued his association with Monroe, playing baseball with his team, until August 1949.
Hagood told Bluegrass Today about his long-time interest in Akeman, and what led him to writing about the hat-flipping, banjo-picking man from Kentucky …
“I first saw a photo of Stringbean in a library book when I was maybe twelve years old. I thought he was the strangest looking fellow I could imagine. I was already obsessed with old-time music, especially Jimmie Rodgers, and I loved the banjo from seeing Roy Clark play it on Hee Haw (there is at least one photo of Jimmie Rodgers playing the banjo too). Around that time, I managed to pester my parents into buying me a Harmony banjo from Sears, and they were kind enough to take me to the Country Music Hall of Fame. There I saw Stringbean’s Vega #9, and was blown away with what a banjo could be. While I gawked at the instrument, my eyes roving over the engraved inlays and the dark area on the head where Stringbean’s fingers had worn away the coating, my parents got to talking about how Stringbean had been killed.
Fast-forward decades later to 2017: a video of Stringbean popped up on my phone, and I remembered him and wanted to read about his life. I went on the hunt for a biography, but none had been written. I snagged a copy of Warren Causey’s 1975 book on the murder investigation and was gripped by it. But I wanted the whole story, written in a present-day style, so I decided to write the book myself.
I started working on the book right away in 2017, which began quite a learning curve. I had written a number of literary critical books already, but I quickly discovered that biography and true crime required very different research skills from what I already possessed. The learning curve was pretty steep, but it was great to work with census records, letters, radio lists in newspapers, court records, city directories, and so many other sources that were new to me. While certain archives were very helpful—such as the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Center for Popular Music at MTSU—I found myself needing to assemble my own archive of records, magazines, Stringbean’s joke book, and so on.
I had great conversations along the way with such people as Lulu Roman, Roni Stoneman, Mark Jones, Dom Flemons, and Bill Anderson, as well as all kinds of people connected with music figures, such as fiddler Casey Jones’s daughter. Stringbean’s nephew, Philip Akeman, generously offered his help, and Loretta Lynn’s sharing her memories of Stringbean was a particular highlight. Additionally, it was important to me to put Stringbean and his story in as full a context as possible, so I labored to recreate his world, which included consulting WPA guidebooks describing Lexington in the 1930s, researching baseball records to try to find what teams Stringbean may have played on, and reading every daily edition of The Tennesseean from November 11, 1973, to mid-November 1974. It was especially interesting to see what was happening in the world during the investigation and trial, most notably Richard Nixon’s going from the opening of the new Opry building and then into the mess of Watergate.
Along with coming to know Stringbean as thoroughly as possible, I also engaged deeply in the banjo’s history, construction, and nature. Because Stringbean’s persona is so closely tied to the banjo (and having continued to play and love the instrument), I realized that I needed to understand the instrument to its core. Jack Clutter, of the Hall of Fame, and Joe Spann, of Gruhn Guitars, provided intricate detail of the two banjos Stringbean owned when he died.
Ultimately, I decided the best way truly to grasp the instrument was to build one myself, which I did using an original Vega resonator exactly like Stringbean’s. Although I used a Gibson Mastertone-style tone ring made by Sullivan instead of a tubaphone ring like Stringbean’s, the instrument I built features Stringbean’s shallow pot, and I carved my interpretation of the Vega heel and designed inlays based on the old Fairbanks ones on Stringbean’s banjo. I am now using that banjo for promotional events.
As for challenges of writing the book, there were plenty, including the pandemic, difficulties in nailing down and conveying the details of the investigation and trial, and just Stringbean’s aloofness, which made it difficult to get underneath the persona to the real David Akeman (he really did not leave any letters behind other than the ones “from home”). However, by far the biggest challenge was figuring out how to turn two different stories into a single flowing narrative. I realized early on that I was writing two books—one a biography of Stringbean, the other a true crime narrative of an investigation and trial. Both stories could stand alone to some extent, yet each one lacked something deep and essential without the other.
The true crime story presented a new cast of compelling characters—murderers, investigators, attorneys, reporters—who threatened to crowd out Stringbean and his wife Estelle. Of course, Stringbean continued to haunt the true crime story, but it was not always easy to figure out how much to remind readers of him, or just let that haunting happen in the readers’ minds. Long story short, blending the two stories with throughlines and proper proportion was extremely challenging, and I am deeply grateful to the anonymous peer reviewers working with the manuscript for helping me. I think we ended up finding the best approach in the end, and hopefully readers will agree.
Needless to say, murder is messy, even when a case seems simply open-and-closed. And any biographical journey produces quite a few stories.”
Stringbean: The Life and Murder of a Country Legend is to be published on May 23, 2023, as part of UIP’s Music in American Life series.
272 pages (paperback)
ISBN-10 : 0252087119
ISBN-13 : 978-0252087110
Dimensions – 15.24 cm x 2.29 cm x 22.86 cm ( 6 inches x 0.9 inches x 9 inches )
It will be available from all good book shops and on-line outlets.
Taylor Hagood is a professor in the department of English at Florida Atlantic University. His books include Faulkner, Writer of Disability and Secrecy, Magic, and the One-Act Plays of Harlem Renaissance Women Writers.