Remember How Stringbean Akeman’s Murder Changed Country Music?
The circumstances surrounding the murders of David "Stringbean" Akeman and his wife changed Nashville and country music forever.
The singer, banjo player and homespun humorist was born in 1914. He married his wife, Estelle, in 1945, and he'd go on to become a star on the Grand Ole Opry in the 1950s, frequently performing with Grandpa Jones, who was one of his closest friends and also his neighbor in Goodlettsville, Tenn. The two men were also part of the cast of a new country music sketch comedy television series, Hee Haw, beginning in 1969.
Akeman and his wife lived modestly in a small cabin, but he was known to carry large amounts of cash, since he didn't trust banks after the Great Depression. According to Nashville's Tennessean newspaper, their life out in the country was so idyllic that they told friends they could leave a bucket of cash on the porch, go on tour and return to find it still sitting there, which made the events of the night Nov. 10, 1973, that much more shocking.
Akeman and Estelle returned home to their cabin that Saturday night after a routine performance at the Opry, and when they rolled up to the cabin, authorities believe Akeman noticed something was wrong with the porch. He approached the house alone, armed with a .22 pistol that he carried with him for protection, and when he went inside, two men were waiting for him.
23-year-old cousins John Brown and Doug Brown had already torn the cabin apart, searching for the money they had heard Akeman kept on hand. Doug Brown shot Akeman dead, then pursued Estelle — who had begun to run to the road and yell for help — out into the yard, where he shot her in the back of the head. According to later testimony, she begged for mercy before he killed her.
Trials would later reveal that the men's motive had been robbery, fueled by alcohol and drugs. They got away with just $250 that they found in Akeman's front overall pocket, Estelle's purse and a few guns, driving the couple's station wagon. Investigators would later find thousands of dollars in cash on the couple's bodies that the killers had missed, sewn into special pockets inside their clothing.
Grandpa Jones found the bodies the following morning when he showed up at their cabin for a hunting trip he and Akeman had planned. The brutal murders marked a turning point in Nashville history.
"It was a subculture where everyone dealt in handshakes, promises and word-of-mouth with no fear of betrayal," prominent Nashville guitarist Steve Gibson, whose father, Curt Gibson, performed with Akeman during that final Opry show, told the Tennessean. "The best qualities of any small town really defined Nashville as Music City, and with the violent, brutal murders of Stringbean and Estelle, everyone had to rethink all that. We started looking over our shoulders and wondering what was happening."
Their friends would recall them with love decades later.
"They were such gentle people, both of them," Grandpa Jones' wife, Ramona Jones, said. "Sweet, gentle people that loved nature and spent most of their free time fishing on a creek ... For a year, I couldn't hardly talk about it. It was devastating. A sad time. A trying time. I don't think you ever get over something like that. Our lives were never the same after that."
In the 1990s, two decades after the murders, several news organizations reported that $20,000 had been found behind a brick in the chimney of the Akemans' old fireplace, but it was too deteriorated to be usable. It's unclear if that story was ever verified.
Both Brown cousins were sentenced to life in prison, and Doug Brown died behind bars in 2003. John Brown pleaded for forgiveness and logged a record of good behavior in the decades after the murders, and in 2014, despite a campaign from Opry stars Bill Anderson, Jan Howard, Jean Shepard and Mac Wiseman for him to remain incarcerated, the Tennesee Board of Parole voted to free the then-64-year-old man.
Speaking to the Tennessean afterward, Wiseman called it a "great miscarriage of justice ... It makes me question the legal system."
"I fully believe that the good Lord forgives us for our mistakes," Wiseman added, but the parole board members "don't have the authority, spiritually or otherwise, to forgive that man, I don't think."
Jean Shepard echoed that thought. "Why should they turn him loose? He cold-bloodedly killed two friends of ours," she said. "I'm sure the Lord will forgive him. I don't think any of us will."