There are two kinds of people in the world of my generation: Those who grew up watching “Hee Haw” and those who did not. If you count yourself among the former, as I do, then you have come across David “Stringbean” Akeman, the rural comedian and old-time banjo-picker who is the ill-fated subject of Taylor Hagood’s “Stringbean: The Life and Murder of a Country Music Legend.” Stringbean appeared on the first “Hee Haw” episode in 1969 and appeared on the country music variety program through spring of 1974, even though he and his wife were murdered at their home in November 1973. (“Hee Haw” episodes were pre-taped in batches.) He appeared as the forlorn scarecrow dryly cracking wise on the jokes and puns told by other cast members popping up from a cornfield planted on a soundstage. He was also featured in a segment in which he read comic “letters from home” to a group of cast members gathered about his rocking chair. And occasionally he picked some banjo.
When my review copy from the University of Illinois Press arrived, I decided to call an expert on the subject matter. My father is a native West Virginian for whom “Hee Haw” was steady viewing. “What do you remember about Stringbean,” I asked him over the phone. “Stringbean?” He chuckled, “I remember he was skinny and wore a funny hat and liked to go fishing. I don’t remember too much about the murder. He was like Minnie Pearl, popping up on different country shows now and then, like Porter Wagoner’s, and ‘Hee Haw,’ of course. He and Grandpa Jones [a banjo player and ‘Hee Haw’ regular] were buddies. In the early days we listened to Stringbean on the Grand Ole Opry after we got electricity, around 1948 or forty-nine. Of course, these days, you can get all the Stringbean you want on the YouTube.”
Dad’s use of the definite article notwithstanding, he’s right about the ubiquity of Stringbean on YouTube. A quick search yields a decent crop of Stringbean performances. By the time of his “Hee Haw” heyday (or, if you prefer, hay day), Stringbean had already established himself as an entertainer on the hayseed circuit. Born in Kentucky, he first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry radio program in 1942 as a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. After leaving Monroe—Earl Scruggs took over and the rest is bluegrass history—Stringbean paired with other partners and toured the country in multiple musical outfits as he honed the comic persona that became his trademark.
As country music coalesced into a blend of old-time mountain music, Western swing, rockabilly, bluegrass, gospel and saddle ballads, many local radio and television stations produced country music programs to fill their broadcast hours. Often livening up these barn dances were comedians whose routines emphasized the program’s dirt-road street cred. These stock characters played on rural stereotypes and spun tall tales, told corny jokes, stumbled over malapropisms, and sang funny songs. Many were also skilled musicians performing with an equally skilled comic straight man. Stringbean took to exaggerating his gangly appearance by wearing a colorful striped or checkered shirt with an exceptionally long tail tucked into pants buckled just above his knees. The effect was akin to the image in a carnival mirror—stubby legs topped by a torso stretched long. Hagood calls Stringbean “a kind of Pierrot… the sad clown from Europe’s stock characters of commedia dell’arte.” It’s a thoughtful comparison. Certainly, the country comedians performed the clown’s role in relieving audiences of dramatic tension and offering emphatic counterpoint to the spit and polish of the musical professionals they appeared with. More problematically, rural comedians drew on many of the routines and mannerisms of the Southern minstrel show, sometimes even performing in blackface, as Stringbean did early in his career. The history of country music doesn’t lack for racist overtones; this is a string I wish Hagood had plucked a little harder.
And, as the book’s title makes clear, looming over all is senseless tragedy. It is not until the mid-point of the book that we get to the murders of Stringbean and his wife. The crimes are investigated, motives and means are established, suspects are arrested, a trial ensues. Although Hagood does his best to give this part of Stringbean’s story forward momentum, a thicket of details tends to slow the narrative. The book includes photographs, including two that show the bodies as they were found. These I might have done without.
Hagood, who writes with an appealingly loose and earnest style, has genuine affection for Stringbean. Perhaps the most moving passages are those in which Hagood reflects on the symbiotic relationship between the man and his trusty Vega No. 9 Tubaphone banjo. It was a relationship as intimate as that between a cowboy and his horse. Watch those early videos of Stringbean and you’ll see his banjo practically ride itself as it gallops through an old-time tune like “Little Liza Jane.” No wonder Stringbean would deadpan in such moments, “I feel so unnecessary.”
“Stringbean: The Life and Murder of a Country Music Legend”
By Taylor Hagood
University of Illinois Press, 264 pages