David Akeman, better known as Stringbean, is an often overlooked part of the long history of bluegrass and country music. To some he is the Wally Pipp of bluegrass music, as he is the man who preceded banjo master and innovator Earl Scruggs in Bill Monroe’s band in the 1940s. (For my baseball illiterate friends, Wally Pipp was the starting first baseman for the New York Yankees. He did not play one day because he had a headache and was replaced by eventual Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig who went on to play a then-record 2130 consecutive games. Pipp never regained his starting position and was eventually traded). Because of Scruggs absolutely revolutionary approach to the banjo and the way he helped reshape what would become known as bluegrass, Stringbean’s role in Monroe’s band, like Pipp, is often relegated to that of an afterthought, an almost forgotten era before the big-bang of bluegrass and the earth shattering lineup of Monroe, Scruggs, guitarist Lester Flatt, fiddler, Chubby Wise, and bassist Howard Watts (stage name Cedric Rainwater). The addition of Scruggs and his groundbreaking three-finger style banjo made Stringbean’s clawhammer technique and comedic stylings (on stage he dressed in a long nightshirt that was tucked into a pair of short jeans that were belted around his knees giving the appearance of an extremely long torso and tiny legs and helping to accent the Stringbean nickname), seem quaint and outdated and caused many to devalue him as a musician. Still, Stringbean after leaving Monroe would go onto an extremely long career as a member of both the Grand Ole Opry and the long running country comedy variety tv show Hee-Haw.
Stringbean’s career and his life were cut short when he and his wife were tragically murdered in 1973 in a botched robbery attempt at their home. The new book ‘Stringbean: The Life and Murder of a Country Legend’ by Talyor Hagood, not only serves to remind and establish Stringbean’s often overlooked musical legacy, but also serves as a true crime thriller with a highly detailed account of the murder and ensuing trial. Hagood expertly details Stringbean’s long career and gives new meaning to both him and his music.
The deeply researched biography helps dispel a number of myths surrounding Stringbean, Bill Monroe, and the early years of bluegrass, as well as addressing those that will remain mysteries as no definitive answer exists today, such as how did Stringbean come to join Monroe’s bluegrass boys? Common lore says Monroe hired Stringbean off the baseball team he managed, but according to Hagood, timing and evidence seems to contradict this long held belief. ‘Stringbean’ leaves no stone unturned, following a chronological approach that breaks down each chapter into smaller segments covering a specific period of time and providing a thorough examination of both his musical and personal life.
The final third of the book deals with the tragic murder of Stringbean and his wife Estelle and is a riveting account of the investigation and trial that followed. The coverage of the trial is at times overburdened with detail, but Hagood is commended for the meticulous research and reconstruction of the murder, investigation, trial, and aftermath.
‘Stringbean: The Life and Murder of a Country Legend’ is a worthy addition to the publisher, University of Illinois Press, highly acclaimed Music in American Life series. It not only details Stringbean’s life and career, but examines the bluegrass and country world that he inhabited and was such an important component of. For those who already have an understanding of this musical era it is still a valuable read as it fills in many holes, for those without that prior knowledge it is an excellent starting point.
Taylor Hagood “Stringbean: The Life and Murder of a Country Legend” is available in Europe via Combined Academic Publishers.