by Robert A. Waters
David “Stringbean” Akeman was an anachronism. Born in Kentucky, he grew up destitute during the Depression. He watched the few people who had money lose it when the banks failed, and that made a lasting impression. Somewhere along the line, he learned to play the claw-hammer banjo. He gravitated to Nashville and got a gig with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. Nicknamed Stringbean because of his six-foot five-inch height, Akeman played with Monroe for three years. As his gig with the notoriously hard-to-get-along-with Monroe was ending, he met his future wife Estelle.
While modern banjo players learned the Earl Scruggs three-finger style of picking, Stringbean continued to use the “frailing” method. On-stage, he sang old-time songs, and told corny jokes. To accentuate his height, Akeman began wearing a striped shirt that came to his knees—short pants made him look taller than he was.
By the 1970s, country music had gone “pop,” but Stringbean never left his hillbilly roots. Inexplicably, at least to the Nashville slicks that ran the country music scene, many people liked his simple corn-ball style. College students, in particular, many of whom had gravitated to folk music, loved the old-time music. During the folk revival, Stringbean played college campuses all over the country. He never learned to drive, so Estelle would chauffeur him around in their brand-new Cadillac.
The Caddy was their only extravagance. Stringbean detested banks, and stashed currency in and around his cabin. He always kept cash hidden in his clothing.
Soon, Stringbean became a regular on the popular television show, “Hee Haw.” By then, he’d been playing on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry for years. While he never had a “hit” record, he recorded seven albums, and earned more money than he ever could have imagined.
Along with his best friend and fellow-musician, Louis Marshall “Grandpa” Jones, Akeman bought a 50-acre spread in Ridgefield, near Nashville. Stringbean and Grandpa hunted or fished together nearly every day. But that came to an abrupt end on the night of November 10, 1973.
John A. Brown and his brother, Doug, had heard rumors that Stringbean carried wads of cash wherever he went. Drug-addled losers, they broke into his cabin while he played the Grand Ole Opry. Waiting for Stringbean and Estelle to return, they ransacked the residence. In typical fashion, they failed to find any money at all.
Just before midnight, Akeman and Estelle drove up in their 1973 Cadillac. Stringbean immediately sensed that something was amiss in the house. He told Estelle to wait in the car, then drew a pistol from his overalls. Entering his residence with his gun drawn, Stringbean spotted the intruders and opened fire.
John Brown fired back, and Akeman collapsed in the doorway of his home.
Estelle, hearing the gunshots, got out of the car and began running away, possibly to Grandpa Jones’ farmhouse. Brown chased her down, and as she begged for her life, executed her.
The two brothers searched the bodies of Stringbean and Estelle for cash, but found only $250. (They missed nearly $5,000 that each had stashed in their clothing.)
When Grandpa Jones found the bodies early the next morning, Nashville’s music establishment reeled with shock. If there was any innocence left in Nashville, it evaporated on that cold November day.
It took three months, but the Brown brothers were tracked down and arrested. Turns out they’d been bragging to their loser “street friends” about killing Stringbean and Estelle. John and Doug Brown were tried and convicted of the murders. Each brother received 99 years for killing Stringbean and 99 years for the murder of Estelle, adding up to 198 years in prison for each brother. Doug eventually died in prison, and most people forgot about John Brown.
But after serving 41 years, a “reformed” John A. Brown received word that he would be paroled. A model prisoner, he stressed to the parole board that he’d rehabilitated himself. He apologized profusely for murdering the couple. Brown claimed to have found religion, and received many glowing references about how he had changed. In short, he did everything that the book says to do in order to gain sympathy.
Yet many people are mystified at how 198 years suddenly becomes 41 years. Jan Howard, a Grand Ole Opry regular and a friend of Stringbean and Estelle, said: “This is a miscarriage of justice. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to 198 years in prison. Why bother if they're not going to carry it out?”