Opry Murder Victim Remembered 40 Years Later

This appeared in the Murfreesboro Post - November 17, 2013

John and Hilda Stuart and their daughter, Jennifer Stuart, recall their last visits with entertainer David “Stringbean” Akeman and his wife, Estelle Akeman, before they left the Grand Old Opry on a cold winter night 40 years ago.

The Akemans were slain the night of November 10, 1973, by John Brown and a cousin, neighbors of the Akemans in the rural Ridgetop community north of Davidson County.

The cousin has since died in prison and convicted murderer John Brown remains in prison, due largely to the efforts by Music City’s tight-knit family.

Stringbean often went armed, so when entering the cabin and realizing someone was there, he died in a shootout.

Upon hearing the shots, Estelle Akeman attempted to escape the scene out through a field, but she was chased down and executed gangland style with shots to the back of her head, all while she begged for her life in a nearby field, according to police files.

Their bodies were found the next morning by fellow Opry entertainer Grandpa Jones, a close friend who has since died.

John Stuart recalls visiting often with the Akemans.

“In our last visit, I shared Estelle (Akeman’s) popcorn there backstage as we waited for our son, Marty (Stuart), to perform later on the Opry,” he said. “As we visited, Stringbean was performing out on stage.”

The country boys often shared fishing and hunting tales.

“The Saturday night of his murder was the last night I visited with Stringbean,” he said. “Stringbean was often lured to fish, so we frequently shared fishing and hunting tales and compared pocket knives. Talking about fishing seemed to relax him before he’d go out on stage.”

Retired Murfreesboro banker Hilda Stuart grew emotional in describing her last words with Stringbean, who was at the apex of national popularity in the 1970s as a regular on Hee Haw, the most popular syndicated TV show in Nashville’s history.

“Stringbean always called our son his ‘Little Man,’” she said. “He had known Marty (Stuart) since he began performing on the Opry at age 12 with Lester Flatt.

“That last night, Stringbean came up and shared how well our ‘Little Man’ was doing professionally,” she added. “He went so far as to comfort me as a parent, saying, ‘Don’t you worry about Little Man. … I’ll keep an eye out and take care of Little Man.’

“Their murders shattered the innocence of Nashville’s music families,” Hilda Stuard said. “Their senseless murders shattered our world. The result is that entertainers and their families now remain more private when not performing.”

Jennifer Stuart recently appeared on The Truman Show on WGNS Radio with former Rutherford County Sheriff Truman Jones.

“They had been to our home in Smyrna, so they were family to us,” she said. “(They) were especially good to children as we were growing up backstage at the Opry. They were up close and personal friends.”

When Brown’s possible parole appeared imminent in 2011, the Nashville music industry rallied to keep him behind prison walls.

It was Bill Anderson who initially sounded the alarm, loud and clear in July 2011 to the Tennessee Board of Parole that Brown should not be released.

And this became big news in Middle Tennessee.

“I never want (Brown) to breathe fresh air again,” testified recording star Jan Howard to the board.

“No way should John Brown ever see the light of day again,” Jennifer Stuart added.

Grand Ole Opry photographer Les Leverett, who is now retired, made an emphatic plea to the board as well.

“This board has within its hands the power to keep this murderer in prison where he belongs,” Leverett said. “I beg you to do that.”

Leverett, who served as the Opry’s official photographer for nearly 40 years, took one of Stringbean’s last personal calls on the behind-the-stage phone.

“The Opry security person had left his post, and the phone kept ringing, so I finally answered. The phone interrupted my visit with Stringbean. As it turned out, the call was for (him,)” he said.“After taking the call, Stringbean told me it was a Las Vegas promoter offering him $10,000 for a single performance.”

“When I asked Stringbean (what was) his response to that lucrative offer, he replied, ‘I didn’t take him up on it, hoss. There ain’t no fishing out there.’”

The Akemans ave been gone four decades now, but they are not forgotten.

They frequently stopped to eat in Murfreesboro and Woodbury restaurants while en route to fish in area lakes and streams.

By Dan Whittle

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