By DAN WHITTLE
Smyrna residents John and Hilda Stuart, and daughter Jennifer, recall "last visits" with entertainer David "Stringbean" Akeman and his wife, Estelle, before they left the Grand Old Opry on a cold winter night 40 years ago.
The Akemans were slain the night of Nov. 10, 1973, by John Brown and a cousin, neighbors of the Akeman's 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 "Country Music (industry) Family."
Iconic Opry comedic character Stringbean often went armed, so when entering the cabin and realizing someone was there, he died in a shootout.
Upon hearing the shots, wife Estelle attempted to escape the scene out through a field, but was chased down, and then executed "gangland style" with shots to the back of her head as she begged for her life in a nearby field, according to police files.
Their bodies were found the next morning by close friend and fellow Opry entertainer Grandpa Jones, also now deceased.
John Stuart recalls visiting often with Estelle and Stringbean.
"In our last visit, I shared Estelle's popcorn there back stage as we waited for our son, Marty, to perform later on the Opry," recalled John Stuart. "As we visited, Stringbean was performing out on stage."
"Country boys" John and Stringbean often shared fishing and hunting tales.
"The Saturday night of his murder, was the last night I visited with 'String,'" John recalls. "String was often 'lured' to fish, so we frequently shared fishing and hunting tales, and compared pocket knives. Talking about fishing seemed to relax String 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.
"String always called our son Marty, his 'Little Man,'" Hilda shared. "He had known Marty since he began performing on the Opry at age 12 with Lester Flatt.
"That last night, String came up and shared how well our 'Little Man' was doing professionally," Hilda added. "String 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,"she shared.
"Their senseless murders shattered our world," Hilda added. "The result is that entertainers and their families now remain more private when not performing."
Daughter Jennifer Stuart recently appeared on Murfreesboro's WGNS Radio with Truman Jones.
"They had been to our home in Smyrna, so they were family to us," Jennifer described. "String and Estelle were especially good to children as we were growing up backstage at the Opry. They were up close and personal friends."
When John Brown's possible parole appeared imminent back in 2011, Nashville music industry people rallied to keep him behind prison walls.
It was "Whispering" Bill Anderson who initially sounded the alarm, loud and clear in July 2011, to the Tennessee Parole Board that Brown should not be released.
And this became big news in Middle Tennessee news media.
"I never want (Brown) to breathe fresh air again," testified legendary recording star Jan Howard to the parole board.
"No way should John Brown ever see the light of day again," added Jennifer Stuart.
Grand Ole Opry photographer Les Leverett, now retired, made an emphatic plea to the parole board.
"This board has within its hands the power to keep this murderer in prison, where he belongs," Leverett pleaded. "I beg you to do that."
Leverett, who served as the Opry's official photographer nearly 40 years, took one of "String's last personal calls on the Opry's 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 String. As it turned out, the call was for String.
"After taking the call, String told me it was a Las Vegas promoter offering him $10,000 for a single performance out west," Leverett recalls. "When I asked String his response to that lucrative offer, he replied: 'I didn't take him up on it, hoss … there ain't no fishing out there."
String and Estelle have been gone four decades now, but they're not forgotten.
They frequently stopped to eat in Murfreesboro and Woodbury restaurants while en route to fish in area lakes and streams.