Murder on Music Row | The Deaths of David Akeman and James Phillip Widener
In November 1973 country music was rocked by the murders of two of its stars in Nashville. Banjo supremo David Akeman and guitar slinger James Phillip Widener died in similar violent circumstances just weeks apart and it put a whole new meaning on the musical term ‘murder on music row.’
David Akeman was better known as Stringbean and from the 1950s until his death he was a beloved star of the Grand Ole Opry and TV show ‘HeeHaw’. On the night of November 10th 1973 Stringbean and his wife were callously murdered in their Tennessee mountain home.
58 year old Stringbean was in Nashville performing for the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium while two robbers broke into his cabin home in the hills of Ridge Top. The two thieves ransacked the cabin in search of money but when their dastardly deed proved fruitless they decided to turn on the radio to listen to the Opry and wait for Stringbean to return home.
Despite his fame Stringbean was well known around Nashville for his rather frugal lifestyle. Both he and his wife Estelle lived in a small cabin in the woods of Ridge Top. The only extravagance they showed was the new Cadillac they bought every year, paid for in cash.
Stringbean, like many mountain men of his generation who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, did not trust banks and rumour around Nashville had it that the country star kept his wealth at home. Such a rumour resulted in 23 year old cousins Martin and John Brown to set off on that November night to steal Stringbeans fortune.
At 10.30 that Saturday night, Stringbean finished his performance on the Grand Ole Opry and packed his costume into its trunk, putting his banjo back in its case before setting off for home with his wife who drove the Cadillac. Estelle drove Stringbean everywhere, he never learned how to drive so his devoted wife did it for him.
When they reached their home, Estelle dropped her husband at the front porch while she drove around the side to park the car. Stringbean noticed the front door had been kicked in so he placed his trunk and banjo case on the porch and drew his pistol.
Inside the cabin, Stringbean encountered the robbers, but before he had a chance to shoot first, one of the robbers pulled the trigger of a shotgun they had taken from the gun cabinet and blasted him in the chest.
Stringbean died instantly while outside, Estelle heard the shot and ran towards the house but the two robbers ran out and drew guns on her. Estelle turned to run away but a bullet hit her in the shoulder and took her down. As she tried to crawl away the two robbers stood over her and one of them put a pistol to her head. Estelle pleaded for her life but the trigger was pulled and the life she pleaded for was extinguished.
At dawn the following morning Stringbeans friend and fellow country star, Grandpa Jones, called to pick him up as the two had organised to go on a fishing trip. Jones first came across Estelle’s lifeless body and then ran inside the cabin to find Stringbean in a pool of blood in front of the fireplace.
Jones was in complete and utter shock, one which he never fully recovered from. Both he and Stringbean had become a popular double act on the TV series ‘HeeHaw.’ On the show Stringbean was instantly recognisable with his ridiculous costume of a long wasted shirt to exaggerate his height, and a pair a short blue jeans with the belt at the knees.
Stringbean was loved by all in the country music scene and his murder shocked Nashville to its core. The murderers were quickly apprehended and successfully convicted thanks to Grandpa Jones who testified in court that he recognised one of Stringbeans guns stolen from his cabin. Along with a number of guns, the robbers also took a chainsaw.
The Brown cousins were each sentenced to 198 years. Marvin Brown died in Brush Mountain prison in 2003 while his cousin John was released on parole in 2014 having served 41 years of his sentence.
Stringbean and Estelle were buried side by side in Forrest lawn memorial gardens in Goodlettsville Tennessee. Some years later, a bronze statue of the banjo player was erected at his place of birth in Jackson County, Kentucky.
Just 17 days after the death of Stringbean and his wife, another murder rocked music row. On the night of November 27 1973 James Phillip Widener drove to the North Nashville Holiday Inn to meet the widow of Eddie Hazelwood who had promised to give Widener some unrecorded songs of her recently deceased husband.
Widener was a well known rhythm guitar player in the Nashville scene and throughout the 1950s and 60s he played with several top acts such as Hank Snow and Jimmy Dickens among many others.
By 1973 Widener decided to turn his hand at a solo career and after the death of his friend, the songwriter Eddie Hazelwood, Mrs Mildred Hazelwood agreed to help Widener in his quest by gifting him some of her late husband’s unrecorded songs. After they met in the North Nashville Holiday Inn, both Widener and Mrs Hazelwood were accosted by three men in the car park. They were beaten and robbed by the three thugs who then coldly shot them dead.
The murderers bundled the bodies of Widener and Mrs Hazelwood into the boot of Wideners car. They drove 5 blocks away where they dumped the bodies in a dark alley way.
Within a week police recovered Wideners Lincoln Continental in Memphis and arrested the murderers when they tried to use Wideners stolen credit card.
Widener was laid to rest in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. His murder, like that of Stringbeans, stunned the music world in 1973, none more so than in Music City USA. Four people had been killed in cold blood for little or nothing. Those who carried out the murders achieved little in the way of financial gain and ended up behind bars for their evil exploits.
In 1996 a man who was renting Stringbeans cabin noticed scraps of paper sticking out from behind the stones in the breast of the fireplace. He removed some of the stones and found the remains of 20,000 dollars. The stash was so decayed and half eaten by insects and mice that it was rendered useless. Stringbeans fortune, that very one the robbers had spilled his blood for years earlier had instead been claimed by the wild elements of Ridge Top Tennessee.