I never saw the Grand Ole Opry, though I did stay one night at Nashville’s Opryland Hotel, where housekeeping left a Goo Goo Cluster candy bar on my pillow.
For people who lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the Grand Ole Opry was what the Ed Sullivan show was to us Easterners: a big vaudeville hodgepodge of comedy skits, pretty gals, and hot musical acts.
A few months ago, some of my Facebook friends—most of whom I’ve happily never met—began posting tributes to David “Stringbean” Akeman, who died on November 10, 1973. Most of his friends lived in or near Nashville, others a state or two away. They all considered Stringbean a close friend, just as I do my virtual pals.
Stringbean was, as you might expect, a very tall, very skinny man, best known for playing the banjo for the Grand Ole Opry and, later, on Hee Haw. He was about as country as one can be. Born in Kentucky in 1915, he bought his first banjo at age twelve, swapping a few of his prize chickens for it. He played banjo the old-fashioned way, “clawhammer style.” He grew up as a poor kid in the rural South, but even when he became a headliner on radio and TV he kept the old ways.
The word fame does not seem elastic enough to encompass both Stringbean and the Kardashians. Modern fame needs scores of minders and fluffers, bodyguards and publicists; for Stringbean it required nothing but the man and his banjo.
He never owned a house fancier than the tiny, bare-bones cabin in Ridgetop, Tennessee, where he lived with his wife, Estelle. Except for a one-time splurge on a Cadillac (which he never learned to drive) and a color TV set, Mr. and Mrs. Bean hunted, fished, and lived as frugally as possible. Unlike some rhinestone-studded country-western stars, Stringbean wore overalls on- and off-stage—or for comic relief, his pants around his knees. He had friends and fame and fans. Life was good for Ol’ String until he was murdered.
It was common knowledge that Stringbean did not trust banks. He kept all his money hidden around the house. After one of his performances at the Opry, two men hid in the shadows of his cabin waiting for his return. They shot him, and then they shot Estelle, who pleaded for her life, tried to crawl away, but couldn’t. The men tore the little cabin apart looking for these legendary wads of cash. The only things of any value they turned up were a pistol and an old chain saw. Grandpa Jones, Stringbean’s neighbor and fellow Opry star, found the bodies the next morning.
The killers were twenty-three-year-old cousins. They both got life sentences, 198 years each. One of them died in prison about ten years ago; the other one was paroled after serving forty-one years. Grandpa Jones told the jury that he’d given the stolen pistol to Stringbean as a gift. No one claimed the chain saw.
Because in the South things tend to stay the same, no one ever tore down Stringbean’s cabin. Ten years ago, a man rented it and when he lit a blaze in the fireplace ghostly shards of hundred dollar bills came pouring out the flue. Tens of thousands of dollars had left their hiding place. Over the years, the cash had deteriorated into mossy, unusable wisps, but the rumors were true: Stringbean was rich.
If you’re looking for a lesson in all this, you can ponder these lines from John Dryden:
Fame then was cheap, and the first comer sped:
And they have kept it since by being dead.
Or you can believe that that evil has no beginning or end. Even in the more innocent days of Nashville (and of the rest of the world) terrible things happened to nice people.
I would prefer to be cheered by the few who still post tributes to Stringbean on the anniversary of his death every November. I’m happy that in 2009 a song called “The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle” was recorded and nominated as Song of the Year by the International Bluegrass Association.
Remembering is the only true immortality. Your friends and fans, even if you have never met them, still hold you in their hearts.
Jane Stern is the author of more than forty books, including Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself by Becoming an EMT. She is the canine editor of Departures. With Michael Stern, she coauthored the popular Roadfood guidebook series. The Sterns recently donated forty years of archival materials to the Smithsonian museum, documenting the atmosphere, stories, and history of various restaurants, diners, and regional food events.