PEARL, MINNIE (Sarah Ophelia Colley, Mrs.Henry Cannon) (1912–1996) Comic

For more than 50 years, Sarah Ophelia Colley charmed listeners of the Grand Ole Opry radio show with her comic character Minnie Pearl. Born on October 12, 1912, Colley grew up in a cultured, wealthy family in Centerville, Tennessee. As a child, she enjoyed vaudeville, but while attending Ward-Belmont College in Nashville, Tennessee, she became enamored with serious theater. Her ambition was to have a theatrical career like her idol, KATHARINE HEPBURN.

After several years of teaching dramatics in Centerville, Colley was hired in 1934 as a director by Wayne P. Sewell Productions. The company staged productions in rural areas to benefit local charities. During one of these shows, Colley boarded with an elderly mother of 16 children in Baileyton, Alabama. The woman amused Colley with old folk stories about the families living on Baileyton Mountain. “After 10 days with her,”Colley later remembered, “I began to quote her and people would laugh.” Incorporating her own experiences in the South, Colley crafted her friend’s tales into a comic persona from Grinder’s Switch, a small, fictional town named after a railroad switching station near Centerville. She named her alter ego “Minnie Pearl” because “there was always an Aunt Minnie or a Cousin Pearl back where I came from.”

Returning to Nashville, Colley auditioned as Minnie Pearl for WSM, the high-watt radio station that broadcast the Grand Ole Opry throughout the South. Though somewhat put off by an educated woman playing a broad country character, the station managers agreed to put her on late in the show. The fan response was so positive that she soon became a fixture on the show. Greeting the audience with “Howdyyy! I’m just so proud to be here,” Minnie Pearl was a cheery, country spinster, full of stories about Uncle Nabob and Aunt Ambrosia and ever on the hunt for a “feller.” The character’s trademark was her flower-covered, dime store hat, with a price tag dangling from its brim. Although Minnie Pearl’s cornball jokes provoked groans as often as laughs, she struck a chord with fans nostalgic for old country ways quickly disappearing in the rural South.

In addition to appearing on the Opry, Pearl toured frequently, often as an opening act for her friend and mentor, musician Roy Acuff. In 1947, she married Henry Cannon, a former army pilot who supported her career by flying Pearl to outof-town engagements. Pearl also recorded comedy records but had only one hit, “Giddyup Go—Answer” (1966). More successful were her television appearances. In the 1970s, she reached an audience that had never heard of the Opry on the nationally syndicated country music variety show Hee Haw. She was a regular on the series for 22 years.

In Nashville, Pearl was revered by country music professionals, especially by the newcomers she often took under her wing. Singers Garth Brooks and Amy Grant both named their daughters after her. She also became one of city’s most prominent civic leaders, a position symbolized by her well-appointed home next to the Tennessee governor’s mansion. After successfully battling breast cancer in the 1980s, Pearl also became an advocate for the American Cancer Society. Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1975, Pearl retired from performing in 1991 following a stroke. She died five years later, on March 4, in Nashville, at the age of 83.

Further Reading
Kenworthy, Kevin, comp. The Best Jokes Minnie Pearl Ever
Told. Nashville, Tenn.: Rutledge Hill Press, 1999.
Pearl, Minnie, with Joan Dew. Minnie Pearl. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Best of Minnie Pearl. Questar, VHS, 1994.
Minnie Pearl: The Starday Years. Starday, CD set, 1998.
Queen of the Grand Ole Opry. Legacy-DNA, CD, 1993.