David "Stringbean" Akeman (1915-1973) was a country music player from the 1940s through 1973, gaining stardom on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, and a regular on the television series Hee Haw.
He was born Annville, Kentucky on June 17, 1915, to a father who played the banjo at square dances and other local events. Inspired by his father, young David made his first instrument out of a shoebox, and at the age of twelve he traded a pair of prize roosters for his first actual banjo. His contacts with his father's fellow musicians - all of whom possessed considerable skill on the instrument - proved invaluable, and before long David was making the show circuit rounds on his own, a good musician in his own right, but his money would come in from the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (where he helped build roads and plant trees), and not from his music. It was a talent contest that gave David his famous name. Asa Martin was on a search for a band member who could play the banjo, and when David won, Martin could not pronounce his last name; instead, the tall, lanky young man (David was about 6'5") was introduced to the crowd as "String Beans", which stuck with him for the rest of his life.
In Martin's band he only played banjo; he was tasked to do comedy as well when an member fell ill, and the dual act caught on. His music was picked up by WLAP in Lexington, Kentucky, and during this period he divided his time between his music with various bands and a life playing baseball in semi-pro leagues, and it was on the ball field that Stringbean came to the attention of Bill Monroe, who was considered the father of bluegrass music. The two years (1943-1945) spent with Monroe produced several hits, among them Goodbye Old Pal, as well as a comedy-music duo with Willie Egbert Westbrook as "String Beans and Cousin Wilbur," and often on the same stage as Monroe's band.
During 1946 he fell in with Louis Marshall "Grandpa" Jones, a fellow banjo player who, like Monroe, Martin, and Earl Scruggs (Stringbean's replacement in Monroe's group) sought to keep the banjo in country music. Both also had a penchant for comedy, and soon Stringbean and Grandpa Jones would be stars on the Opry stage, with Stringbean appearing in an outlandish costume - short pants sewed to a very long shirt - which enhanced his lanky frame. Throughout this period and into the 1950s, Stringbean was one of the top stars of country music, despite never having done an album in his own right until 1961. His first, Old Time Pickin' & Grinnin' with Stringbean (1961), was a collection of folk songs, tall tales, and jokes; Salute to Uncle Dave Macon (1963) and Old Time Banjo Picking and Singing (1964) followed, exemplifying the bluegrass that Stringbean was proud of playing. He also married (in 1946) Estelle Stanfill.
In 1969, Stringbean, Grandpa Jones, and the bulk of established stars in the Grand Ole Opry created the television series Hee Haw, a weekly variety show containing music and comedy, which introduced country music to a new audience. In addition to stints of him on the banjo, Stringbean was cast reading humorous "Letters from Home", or dressed up as a scarecrow in the cornfield delivering short jokes, which were panned by a stuffed crow next to him.
The Great Depression taught Stringbean never to trust banks, and throughout his tenure on the Nashville stage and Hee Haw it was rumored that he carried thousands of dollars in the front pocket of his bib overalls; aware of this several of his friends had pleaded with him to open a bank account for his own safety. On the night of November 10, 1973, a pair of brothers - John and Doug Brown - had entered his cabin north of Nashville for the purpose of taking still more money thought to have been hidden there; the Akemans themselves were at the Grand Ole Opry that night, and the Browns took advantage of their absence, even to turning on the radio to hear the performance. The Browns, however, took too much time ransacking the cabin; they were confronted by Stringbean himself, who had a gun drawn. A struggle ensued, and Stringbean was killed. Estelle was gunned down in the yard as she tried to escape. The next morning, Grandpa Jones discovered the bodies.
After spending a few days boasting about the crime, the Browns were arrested, tried, and convicted of murder; both were given sentences of well-over a century in length. Doug died in prison in 1996, and his brother was denied parole in 2008.
In 1993, a man renting the Akeman cabin discovered bits and pieces of money flying out of the fireplace for no apparent reason. A closer look revealed a hidden space concealed by a brick, containing what remained of approximately $20,000 of Stringbean's money that had rotted away or was shreaded by mice.