Remembering Minnie Pearl
Born: October 25, 1912, Centerville, TN
Died: March 4, 1996, Nashville, TN (Stroke)
Full name: Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon
Spouse: Henry Cannon (m. 1947–1996)
Buried: Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, NY
Minnie Pearl was country music’s premier comedienne for more than fifty years. The long-time Grand Ole Opry star delighted both rural and urban audiences with her down-home brand of humour. Throughout her entire career, the character known as ‘Minnie Pearl’ lived her private life, the epitome of middle-class southern womanhood, as Mrs. Henry Cannon, the wife of a successful Nashville businessman. She took her role of ‘Miss Minnie’ very seriously, working for hours to get the characterisation just right. Alongside her forty-year career on the Grand Ole Opry, she also appeared regularly on Hee Haw in a variety of comic skits, was one of the few country music acts to be featured on NBC’s This Is Your Life, and was a popular chat show guest.
Born Sarah Ophelia Colley on October 25, 1912 in Centerville, Tennessee, the daughter of a successful sawmill owner, she grew up very much a town girl. Though the family suffered financially during the Depression years, she completed two years of education at Nashville’s Ward-Belmont Finishing School where she majored in stage technique. She taught dancing for a few years then throughout most of the 1930s she toured the South organising amateur musicals and dramatic productions for the Atlanta-based Sewell Company. It was at this time that she first started developing her Minnie Pearl routine. Her man hungry, down-home sister act had proved to be very popular. Because of the War, the job for the theatrical production company ceased and she returned home to Centerville in 1940 unemployed. She auditioned ‘Minnie’ for the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville later that year. The cornpone hillbilly—price tag hanging from her straw hat—that she played on stage, based incidentally on real life people from Grinder’s Switch, a railroad switching station just outside of Centerville, made her an instant Opry favourite and she appeared on numerous tours, radio and TV shows, also appearing on the first country music show ever to play New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1947.
Alongside her popular comedy act, she also enjoyed a singing career. She played piano and sang outlandishly off-key renditions of country standards like Jealous Hearted Me or songs designed to reinforce her image such as How To Catch A Man (Or the Minnie Pearl Plan) a 1952 recording for RCA. She also recorded some duets with Grandpa Jones in the mid-1950s, typified by such fare as Kissin’ Games. Later she was signed to Starday Records, recorded several comedy albums and had a top ten country hit with her Giddy-Up Go Answer in 1966. Much honoured by the music industry, she was named Nashville’s Woman Of the Year in 1965, and was the first comedy act to be elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1975. In 1980 she wrote her autobiography, but from the mid-1980s she started suffering from ill health though she continued with her stage and TV career right up until 1991 when she suffered a severe stroke and was forced into semi-retirement. After a prolonged period of poor health, she spent much of her time in a Nashville nursing home, passing away on March 4, 1996.
(Courtesy: Alan Cackett - Americana, Roots, Country & Bluegrass Music)