Minnie Pearl, the stage name of Sarah Ophelia Cannon (October 25, 1912 - March 4, 1996) was a country comedienne who became an institution at the Grand Ole Opry for 50 years and also reached a wide audience on the television show Hee Haw from 1969 to 1991.
From her first appearance on the stage of the Opry in 1940, the character of "Cousin Minnie" was known for her friendly, self-effacing humor and wearing a big straw hat decorated with plastic flowers and a price tag that read "$1.98" hanging off the side. Although Sarah was happily married, "Minnie" was a man-hungry spinster whose earthy humor delighted fans and became a regular fixture at the Opry. She inevitably greeted audiences by shouting "How-deeee! I'm jest so proud to be here!"
In her later life, Sarah Cannon was a noted spokesman for breast cancer research, as well as a humor writer and a well known figure in the Nashville social scene. In 1975, Minnie Pearl was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2002, she ranked number 14 on CMT's 40 Greatest Women in Country Music.
Minnie Pearl's creator was born as Sarah Ophelia Colley in Centerville, in Hickman County, Tennessee about 50 miles southwest of Nashville. She graduated from what was then Nashville's most prestigious school for young ladies, Ward-Belmont. Her family, relatively affluent by the standards of the area and the day, was scandalized by her entry into show business.
Colley's first professional position was with the Wayne P. Sewell Production Company, producing and directing plays and musicals for local organizations in small towns throughout the Southeast. While producing an amateur musical comedy in Baileyton, Alabama, she met a mountain woman on whom she based her onstage persona, "Cousin Minnie Pearl." Her first performance onstage as Minnie Pearl was in 1939 in Aiken, South Carolina.
"Cousin Minnie" auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry in 1940 and soon became a fixture there along with singer Roy Acuff. She also became a popular comedy act outside the Opry, the undisputed queen of country comedy, as well as touring, recording, and writing.Minnie Pearl statue in Centerville, Tennessee
Cousin Minnie's opening catch phrase was always, "Howdeeee! I'm jest so proud to be here," delivered at what seemed to have been the top of her lungs. She was also known for her floppy hat, decorated with plastic flowers and a price tag hanging on it: $1.98. Her character was presented as a man-hungry spinster, willing to settle for almost anything in the way of male companionship. In real life, she was happily married for many years to Henry Cannon, although they had no children.
Minnie Pearl's monologues almost always involved her comical relatives, notably "Uncle Nabob" and "Brother," who was simultaneously both slow-witted and wise. Her frequent exit line to applause was "I love you so much it hurts!" She also sang comic novelty songs, some of which were released as singles, such as "How To Catch A Man."
Pearl's comedy represented a gentle and loving satire of her hometown of Centerville, Tennessee. In her act, Cousin Minnie hailed from Grinder's Switch, a real location just outside of Centerville that consisted of little more than the eponymous railroad switch. Those who knew the town recognized that the characters were largely based on real residents of Centerville.
As Cousin Minnie became famous, much traffic resulted from fans and tourists looking for her hometown that the Hickman County Highway Department was motivated to change the designation on the "Grinder's Switch" road sign to "Hickman Springs Road."
In the late 1960s, "Minnie Pearl" and African-American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson were convinced by Nashville entrepreneur John Jay Hooker to allow their names to be associated with a chain of fried chicken restaurants in competition with Kentucky Fried Chicken. A string of Minnie Pearl fried chicken outlets thus opened in white neighborhoods, with Mahalia Jackson's fried chicken stores as sister stores in the black areas. At first, the stock price of this venture soared; later it collapsed amid allegations of accounting irregularities and stock price manipulation. The affair was thoroughly investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and Cannon ("Minnie") and Jackson were found to have been completely uninvolved in any wrongdoing. However, they were both considerably embarrassed by the negative publicity surrounding their names. A small number of these restaurants survived into the 1980s in the Middle Tennessee area, and one Mahalia Jackson outlet still exists in North Nashville.
Sarah Ophelia Cannon also portrayed the "Minnie Pearl" character for many years on the perennial Saturday night television cornfest Hee Haw, both on the original network and subsequent syndicated versions. The program was shot entirely in Nashville and totally out of sequence, so that each performer could record all of his or her appearances for an entire television season in a matter of a few days. When asked why the cornball program was so popular, Cannon explained that it took viewers to a place where there was "no war, no cancer."
Her final regular national television appearances came on Ralph Emery's nightly Nashville Now country-music talk show on the former Nashville Network cable channel. She and Emery performed a weekly feature, "Let Minnie Steal Your Joke," in which viewers could send in jokes for Minnie to read on the show, with prizes for the best joke of the week.
Cancer survival and death
In her later years, Mrs. Cannon lived in a prestigious Nashville neighborhood next to the Governor's Mansion, where she befriended several of Tennessee's governors. After surviving breast cancer through aggressive treatments, including a double mastectomy and radiation therapy, she became a spokeswoman for the medical center in Nashville where she had been treated. She took on this role as herself, Sarah Ophelia Cannon, not desiring the "Minnie Pearl" character to be associated with such misfortune. However, a nonprofit group, the Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation, has been founded in her memory to help fund cancer research. The center where she was treated was later named the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center, and has been expanded to several other hospitals in the Middle Tennessee and Southern Kentucky area. Her name has also been lent to the affiliated Sarah Cannon Research Institute.
Her death at the age of 83 was brought on by complications due to a stroke. During her time in the nursing home, she was visited frequently by numerous country-music industry figures, notably Chely Wright, Vince Gill, and Amy Grant. She is buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Franklin, Tennessee.
Sarah Ophelia Cannon was influential in the lives of many older country music singers taking something of a maternal interest in them, especially Hank Williams, but also many of the younger generation of female singers. She had seen many of the inequities in the treatment of women in business in general, and women in the country-music industry in particular, firsthand. She was also a close friend of Paul Reubens and the legendary Dean Martin.
As Cousin Minnie Pearl she was a trailblazer for rural humorists and became country music's most recognizable and beloved comedienne. Among those who followed in her footsteps were Jerry Clower, Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, Carl Hurley, David L Cook, Chonda Pierce, Ron White, and Larry the Cable Guy.
Minnie Pearl was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1975. In 2002, she was ranked number 14 on CMT's 40 Greatest Women in Country Music.
Bronze statues of Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff which are displayed in the lobby of the Ryman Auditorium.
Writings and recordingsTitleMediumPublisher/StudioCopyright1Howdy!Sound RecordingSunset1950Minnie Pearl's DiaryBookGreenberg1953Country Western CaravanSound RecordingRCA Vicor1954Minnie Pearl's Christmas at Grinder's Switch (With Tennessee Ernie Ford)BookAbingdon Press1963America's Beloved Minnie PearlSound RecordingStardayc. 1965History Repeats Itself (With Buddy Starcher)Sound RecordingStardayc. 1967I Didn't Jump the Fence (with Red Sovine)Sound recordingStardayc. 1968Hall of Fame (Vol. 9), (contributor)Sound recordingStardayc. 1969Thunder on the RoadSound RecordingStardayc. 1970Minnie Pearl CooksBookAurora Publishers1970Live at the Grand Ole Opry (With Hank Williams)Sound RecordingMGM1976Minnie Pearl: An Autobiography (with Joan Dew)BookSimon and Schuster1980Christmas At Grinder's Switch (with Roy Acuff)BookAbingdon Press1985Best Jokes Minnie Pearl Ever Told (Plus a Few She Overheard!) (compiled by Kevin Kenworthy)BookRutledge Hill Press1999
SinglesYearTitleU.S. Country1966"Giddyup Go - Answer"10
- Kingsbury, Paul (ed.). "Minnie Pearl." In The Encyclopedia of Country Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 978-0195176087.
- Pearl, Minnie, and Joan Drew. Minnie Pearl: An Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. ISBN 978-0671229146.
- Pearl, Minnie, and Kevin Kenworthy. The Best Jokes Minnie Pearl Ever Told: Plus Some That She Overheard! Nashville, Tenn. Rutledge Hill Press, 1999. ISBN 978-1558537347.
- Sample, Tex. Ministry in an Oral Culture: Living with Will Rogers, Uncle Remus, and Minnie Pearl. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0664255060.
All links retrieved October 9, 2018.