Today, we remember the gone-but-not-forgotten star of the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw David "Stringbean" Akeman, whose murderer came up for parole this week.
For all its cheerful banjo pickin' and down-home cowpokin', country music has had its share of dark moments. At 7A.M. January 1, 1953, 29-year-old Hank Williams was pronounced dead after being discovered lifeless in the back of his powder blue Cadillac. It's believed he died somewhere between Knoxville, TN and Oak Hill, VA, his cause of death listed as heart failure, and brought on perhaps by a mix of alcohol and morphine abuse, possibly exacerbated by a fight he'd been in some time earlier.
In 1961, country swing musician Spade Cooley beat his wife to death in their home outside Bakersfield, suspecting her of having had an affair years before (allegedly with Roy Rogers).
Two years later a plane carrying Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins crashed outside Nashville, killing all aboard. Less than a week later, Jack Anglin of the Anglin Brothers and later, of Johnnie & Jack, died when he crashed his car on the way to Cline's funeral.
Half of singer Keith Whitley's biggest hits topped the charts posthumously; he died in 1989 at the age of 34 of acute alcohol poisoning, with a BAC of .477 (the equivalent of 20 1-ounce shots of 100-proof whiskey). Prior to that, his wife, country singer Lorrie Morgan, had gone so far as to bind her legs to his in the night so he couldn't get up to drink during the night, only to find he would get his hands on things like perfume and nail polish.
Whitley's fellow Kentuckian Gary Stewart, well known for his song "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)," died at the age of 59 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the neck on December 16, 2003, less than a month after the death of his wife of nearly 43 years. Seven years earlier, Faron Young killed himself, despondent at the age of 64 over Nashville turning its back on his brand of classic country.
In case you're not feeling adequately depressed by all this, consider the story of "Stringbean." Grandpa Jones tells his story best:
Grandpa's not just spinnin' a yarn; he and Stringbean did indeed live next to each other in Ridgetop, Tennessee, north of Nashville. It was here that Akeman and his wife Estelle Stanfill lived in a modest cabin, where he enjoyed hunting and fishing and didn't waste his money on anything more indulgent than a nice Cadillac.
Stringbean came of age during the Depression, during this time working in the Civilian Conservation Corps, and later won a talent contest and joined a band, earning the name "String Bean" for his tall, thin build. He went on to develop his comedic skills and also played semi-professional baseball. It was here he met bluegrass great Bill Monroe, who played with another semi-pro team, and later played banjo with Monroe's band before being replaced by Earl Scruggs.
By the time he was a mainstay of the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw, it was rumored that Stringbean kept large amounts of cash on hand, as Depression-era bank failures had caused him not to trust banks with his money. On Saturday night November 10, 1973, he and his wife returned home after an Opry performance and found 23-year-old cousins John and Marvin Brown had broken into their cabin, ransacking it in search of money. The two surprised the cousins, who first shot Stringbean and then Estelle, killing them both. Grandpa Jones discovered their bodies the next morning.
The cousins had made off with no more than a chain saw and some guns, and when they were caught, the two accused each other of pulling the trigger. In 1996, 23 years after the murders, $20,000 in deteriorated bills was found behind a chimney brick at Stringbean and Estelle's cabin.
Both Marvin and John were convicted of murder and in 2003, Marvin died of natural causes at Brushy Mountain Prison in Petros, Tennessee. Initially denied for parole in 2008, 60-year-old John Brown asked again this week for release from his 198-year prison sentence. While votes from the full parole board are still pending, he is not expected to be released and will not again be eligible for parole until 2017.
Country singer and television personality Bill Anderson initiated an email campaign this month encouraging people to write letters in opposition to Brown's release, and Opry member Jan Howard, a friend of Stringbean and Estelle's, spoke at Tuesday's parole hearing. "Stringbean and Estelle were two of the kindest, sweetest people I have ever met. I never want (Brown) to breathe fresh air again. I don't care how much he has accomplished in prison."
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