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The end of the innocence - the death of Stringbean

Country Musings by Robert Loy, December 2005

Most people would agree that America lost its innocence on Nov. 22, 1963, but for the millions of us living in small towns I would have to say that didn't happen until 10 years later in November 1973.

The assassination of President John Kennedy was a horrible tragedy, but we already knew that bad things happened in big cities like Dallas. But when David Akeman and his wife Estelle were murdered in Ridgetop, Tenn., suddenly the world seemed a whole hell of a lot scarier, and living where you knew your neighbors and there wasn't a lot of traffic and smog wasn't going to save you.

David Akeman was lean and lanky and destined to become known as Stringbean. He started out as a banjo player, and he played with Bill Monroe and Uncle Dave Macon. Later, he also became famous as a singer and a comedian. (He also became famous for wearing his pants down around his knees long before any teenage mallrats did, so in addition to his many other talents, Stringbean was also a fashion originator.)

Although he was a member of the Grand Ole Opry for more than 20 years and recorded several albums, he's probably best remembered by most of us as one of the original cast members of that bucolic "Laugh-In" spin-off, "Hee-Haw!" He's best remembered by me as being my grandmother's favorite cast member. She loved Stringbean. I was a know-it-all adolescent, and he was too cornball for my sophisticated palate, but I liked him because he made my grandmother laugh.

Like a lot of people who grew up during the Depression, Stringbean did not trust banks and was known to keep huge amounts of cash in his overalls everywhere he went. That's the reason he and his wife were shot to death by two brothers lying in wait for them at the tiny little cabin this TV star still lived in. Their bodies were discovered next morning by their neighbor, fellow "Hee-Haw!" cast member Grandpa Jones.

People were shocked and saddened by these senseless deaths, of course; people always are. But the world kept turning and life kept going. The only thing that was different was everything, best exemplified by my grandmother, who from then on began to make it a point to lock her doors (something she had never done before) because "You just don't know who's out there anymore."

The views expressed in this column are Robert Loy's and do not necessarily reflect those of CST.