There is probably not another country music entertainer whose career was as completely void of hit records, yet was as loved as David "Stringbean" Akeman.
To those country music fans turned on and tuned in to the modern sound of country music, Stringbean was completely "out of the scene." But String had seen many of them come and go and while people and country music underwent many changes over the years, his style and his music remained the same, and in any conversation concerning country music comedy, Stringbean was certain to be mentioned.
My first meeting with Stringbean as in Nashville, Tennessee in May of 1960 at The Grand Ole Opry. I had made the trip to Music City as Mr. D. J. USA that weekend. And that Saturday night I was roaming around backstage, completely struck sideways by all those great country entertainers in one place.
I was talking to Billy Walker when Stringbean came offstage after doing his routine and Billy introduced us. String remarked that he had a new record release and sure hoped I liked it enough to program it on the radio station. When I replied that I didn't have the record, String offered to get one for me from his car in the parking lot.
As I accompanied Stringbean across the Opry parking lot, I was amazed that this easy going friendly country guy. Although I was seeing him for the firs time, this man, who had graced a thousand stages and more in his career, was talking to me like we were country cousins. That Cadillac that String unlocked looked a city block long to this country boy, and he dug a couple of records out of the back seat, handed them to me and proceeded to lock the car. Completely at a loss as to what to say, I thanked him and made some feeble attempt at a compliment about his car.
"Too much car for a country feller," he said,"In fact I never drive anything. My wife does all the driving."
"Well you can't beat having a built in chauffuer in the family," was my half hearted attempt at a joke.
"Yep" was all String had to say about that, as he took another draw on his pipe and we headed back toward the back door of the Opry house. I commented that I was sure that we would be playing his record just as soon as I could get back home to Oklahoma and I would be glad to drop him a card as to what reaction the record received from our listening audience.
"Fine," String replied, "Just don't get mad if I don't write you back. I'm just not much at writing folks." I kept my word and wrote him later that his banjo release did get a few laughs at our radio station and he was right about the fact that he wasn't much on writing folks because I never heard from him.
I saw Stringbean several times after that. Most of those times were when he would play The Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights and I happened to be in Nashville. He would seem to be doing the same jokes and the same songs that I heard him do that very first time I met him and the routines I had heard him do on the WSM Opry broadcasts many many times before...but somehow..... they still seemed funny and still got laughs.
Stringbean seldom made the headlines in country music, and by the same token, you never saw his name on the best sellng records charts. But as always, Stringbean remained one of the mainstays in country music and kept country comedy alive.
When HeeHaw made its debut on television, I could easily see why the comedy format was a success. Simply because these were the same jokes and routines that Stringbean had been doing for years. They were simply doctored and dressed up a little for television.
And though Stringbean had traded his comedy outfit of kneehigh pants and belt for blue overhauls, it was without a doubt the very same Stringbean, and he was still funny.
My last time to see Stringbean was after HeeHaw was well established, although the program was still being given the sham by some in the country music business as a slap in the face to the industry.
Stringbean was doing a series of onenighters in Texas with a lesser known artist and staff band.
When you were backstage, seeking an entertainer or a musician, there was never any doubt as to who Stringbean was. Because he would be the only guy there in blue overhauls, usually off to himself, and with that ever present pipe in his mouth, looking like the guy who was contented to be wherever this might happen to be taking place.
I found that Stringbean met most men with the simple greeting of "Hello bossman," and that was followed by the look on his face of waiting to see if you wanted to shake hands or not. And if you did--well fine--and if you didn't--then that was alright too.
I talked to String quite awhile on that last meeting. He seemed the very same likeable country character he had always been. I mentioned our first meetng in Nashville many years before. String smiled and nodded, still with that pipe in his mouth, like he might have remembered but didn't comment one way or the other.
I mentioned that the one thing I remembered from that first meeting in the early 60's, was that he didn't drive.
"I still don't," String replied with another draw on his pipe..
This was in the fall of the year and I asked him about where his future appearances would be taking him.
"Home," he answered without hesitation, "I've got two more shows to do after tonight and then I'm going home for the winter. I don't like that getting out during the winter....too cold and too bad."
It did't take much prodding for the conversation to turn to fishing, as this was String's favorite pasttime. He mentioned little incidents about his last fishing trip and how he looked forward to going again as soon as he could make it back home. And then it was time to change into his shortpants outfit for his comedy routine onstage.
And once again, I heard those same songs and routines and saw him do that funny little dance, and you know, they were all still funny and still got laughs.
Later in the dressing room, I said something about the crowd being a little light. That didn't seem to bother Stringbean at all. He just smiled and said ,"Well we give'em a show anyway."
I will never forget saying goodbye to Stringbean that last time. I shook hands as he left and said, "String, I'll be seeing you somewhere else down the road."
"Okay bossman," was his only reply as he wondered off to his car, still sucking on that pipe.
Since then, I would remember little things about Stringbean each time I would see him on HeeHaw, doing such routines as his age old letter from home joke, that he always kept right next to his heart, but in his back pocket.
And to pick up the morning paper to read that both he and his wife had been shot to death right outside their own home brought a kind of sick sadness and anger to me.
Here was a kind gentle old guy, who could have never harmed a fellow human being, even if he had wanted to, yet his life had been taken, and the laughter and fun and joy he had brought to millions of people was to be silenced forever.
I hope that somehow, Stringbean is comforted in knowing that in his life and in his career, he had always done what he told me that night, "Well we gave'em a show."
Written By: Doug Davis