Book: Stringbean – The Life and Murder of a Country Music Legend
Author: Taylor Hagood
Publisher: the University of Illinois Press
Publisher Website: www.press.uillinois.edu
Publication Date: 5/23/23
An advance copy of Taylor Hagood's, Stringbean: The Life and Murder of a Country Music Legend was forwarded to me for review for this magazine. I've had a lot of enjoyable (and some not-so-enjoyable) things forwarded to me, but I think this is the one I have enjoyed most. Already a David (Stringbean) Akeman fan, and even mourning his death by murder as a fifteen-year-old Hee Haw fan in 1973, Hagood helps me fill so many voids in a very incomplete mental picture.
The name of the book is Stringbean. David Akeman's stage name, and nickname in real life, was Stringbean. Just like the book, just like Akeman, I use them all interchangeably.
Stringbean goes from an in-depth biography of Akeman and Grand Ole Opry history to a near play-by-play recap of the police investigation and murder trials of John A. Brown Jr. and Douglas Brown, brothers convicted in the murders of Akeman and his wife, Estelle, in a botched robbery at their home in 1973. This scholarly work varies in tone and readability, from a fascinating biography and history to a detective novel. Pulling off such enjoyability in a scholarly work is remarkable. Well done, Taylor Hagood. I could not put the book down once I started. The typeface was a bit small for me, but that is more of a comment about my eyesight than the book. I could have used a point or two larger font.
Not only does Hagood give us a detailed look at the life of Stringbean, but a serious lesson in country music history since Stringbean and early Nashville country music are closely entwined. The fans of Bluegrass and early country music will get an enjoyable lesson about the people who shaped country music and Bluegrass (then called country music, too). The Grand Ole Opry, the ever-morphing and growing Nashville, the near-death of old country music, Bluegrass, and Folk during the unstoppable onslaught of Rock and Roll, and its continued relevance today are all well covered here. Akeman's contributions to country music are not overlooked but deservedly lauded. Regardless of when and which Bill Monroe band member may have contributed to that original Bluegrass sound, Stringbean was the first banjo player in The Bluegrass Boys. Hagood shows us what we always suspected: Stringbean was always Stringbean, a great musician and entertainer.
Particularly interesting to me was learning of the close friendship of Stringbean and Estelle with Grandpa Jones and his wife, Ramona. Not only were they close friends, but they fished together, hunted together, were close neighbors, Opry stars, and were both famous and toured the country together ...they were inseparable. Grandpa Jones discovered their lifeless bodies the morning after their murder. I had known this before, lost it in my memory. Now, it is cemented in my mind, and I will never forget it. Imagine the heartbreak of Grandpa Jones to find his closest friends that way.
Since this is an advance copy, I am cautioned not to use any quotations from the book. This is tough because there are dozens of good quotes in it. Not being able to use quotes, I must resort to a paraphrase or two. Perhaps I already have. While I appreciate getting advance copies, I do not like this restriction. I think it's because there may yet be some editing to be done before the final publication.
While the book reads like a suspense novel, at times, the "might have," "could have," and "may have" sentences get a bit tedious. Even in a life as well documented as Akeman's, there are gaps. Any biographer has to insert himself into the gaps for which there is no solid information. Any biographer has to speculate at times, but even then, Hagood's speculations all have some evidence that leads him to them. In a few chapters, there are a lot. There seemed to be some speculations in the murder trial, too. Hagood reveals that there was a lot of hearsay evidence in the high-profile trial. Nashville abhorred the Akeman murders. An investigation taking over a year before arrests were made, and Nashville royalty demanded justice was a sore spot to Akeman's friends. With cocaine-snorting lawyers dealing with their own personal baggage tarnishing the court proceedings, and the next thing you know, you're seeing all the trappings of a John Grisham novel that happened in real-time in district court in Davidson County, Tennessee, in 1974. It is a fascinating story told well in this book.
Throughout the investigation and trial phases of the book, Hagood introduces characters as fast and furiously as a William Faulkner novel. Unlike Faulkner, Hagood's not making them up since they were real people with very real roles. If you are a Faulkner fan, you already know that keeping notes on what name goes with who is speaking is helpful. I didn't mind this at all. Some will likely go through this part confused, much as I did when I stumbled along in my first William Faulkner experience. You will be better for having done it.
I particularly enjoyed Hagood's peek into Stringbean's forays into the Folk music world and its embrace of him, which was financially beneficial at a time when country music was starving. So many in the Folk scene approach music like Stringbean's from an educational and pedantic position. They had a sincere appreciation for the authenticity and honesty they studied and strived to duplicate.
If this book has a theme, it might be that David Akeman was Stringbean, and Stringbean was David Akeman. The show business image on the stage of The Grand Ole Opry was as real as the man sitting in a chair in front of the fireplace, smoking his pipe, and frailing a tune on his Vega No. 9 banjo in his tiny cabin home.
Get your orders in! You will like this book. Thanks, Taylor Hagood, for filling in so many blanks for me, even those you filled in from your remote closeness to the gentle and genuine spirit of Stringbean.
Stringbean is still a vital part of our music. Stringbean shows us that.
Mississippi Chris Sharp