With her trademark straw hat dangling its price tag and her raucous “How-dee!” Minnie Pearl has established a forty-year reign as the queen of country comedy. The decidedly down-home Minnie is the alter ego of Sarah Colley Cannon, a refined and educated native of Centerville, Tennessee. Cannon began performing as Minnie Pearl in 1940 on the Grand Ole Opry, and some might argue that her face and voice are the most famous ever to emerge from that show. “Minnie Pearl seems indestructible,” writes Leah Rozen in People magazine. “There may be newer and hipper characters, but for… years now the nation has settled back happily and laughed every time Minnie has barged onstage.”
Sarah Ophelia Colley was born October 25, 1912, the youngest of five daughters. Her family was among the most well-to-do in tiny Centerville because her father owned the local lumber business. Reared in a home where education and refinement were paramount—a situation she finds ironic today, given the hayseed nature of her comic character—Colley was expected to do well in school and to attend college. At eighteen she entered Ward-Belmont College, an expensive finishing school in Nashville, where she majored in drama and dance. A flair for comedy had taken root by that time, quite against her will. “Even when I did serious parts I got laughs,” she told People.
After graduation Colley returned to her hometown, where she taught dancing and drama for two years. Decorum demanded that she reach the age of twenty-one before she could travel on her own, and she spent the two years dreaming of a Broadway career. When she finally turned twenty-one she took employment with the Wayne P. Sewall Production Company, an Atlanta-based outfit that sent directors to small communities to stage plays and variety shows. Colley worked for the company for six years, from 1934 until 1940, and she travelled throughout the South into all the tiniest mountain villages. As she journeyed from place to place she picked up stories, songs, and impressions that she stored with no particular purpose in mind.
“I went on the road, and put on these amateur shows, and I met a lot of Minnie Pearls,” she remembered in Behind Closed Doors: Talking to the Legends of Country Music. “I met a lot of country girls who didn’t win the beauty contest, but wanted to be funny, and wanted to be loved and wanted to love people.” Gradually, Sarah Ophelia Colley realized that she too was one of these women. She began doing small bits of comedy, adopting Minnie Pearl because it combined two popular Southern names. The final inspiration for Minnie Pearl came from a mother of sixteen who lived in a cabin on Brenlee Mountain in Alabama. “I came away from there
Full name Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon; born October 25, 1912, in Centerville, Tenn.; daughter of Thomas K. (a lumber mill owner) and Fannie (Tate) Colley; married Henry Cannon (a pilot), 1947. Education: Graduate of Ward-Belmont College, Nashville, Tenn.
Travelling director and drama coach for Wayne P. Sewall Production Co., Atlanta, Ga., 1934-40; comic-singer on Grand Ole Opry and elsewhere, 1940—. Regular performer on “Hee Haw,” 1969—, and “Nashville Now.” Appeared on “Comic Relief’ special to aid the homeless, Home Box Office, 1986.
Awards: Named Nashville’s Woman of the Year, 1965; elected to Country Music Hall of Fame, 1975; recipient of the Courage Award from the American Cancer Society and the Pioneer Award from the Academy of Country Music, both 1987.
Addresses: Other —Halsey, 1111 Sixteenth Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37212.
imitating her,” Colley said. “Not mocking her, but imitating her. That’s when Minnie Pearl was actually born.”
Colley was earning a sparse living from the Works Progress Administration in 1940 when she entertained a banker’s convention as Minnie Pearl. One of the conventioneers paved her way to an audition at the Grand Ole Opry, and soon she was a regular. She would appear on the Opry at night and then travel all week with one of the touring units; often she was the only woman in the group. Her trademark price tag became a part of the act quite by chance, when she literally forgot to cut the tag off some plastic flowers she had added to her straw hat. The price—$1.98—has never changed.
Colley had been working as Minnie Pearl at a grueling pace for seven years when she met her husband, Henry Cannon. Cannon was a licensed pilot who owned a charter service, and after their marriage he flew his popular wife and her co-workers to their live concerts. Thus marriage hardly altered Minnie Pearl’s busy schedule. Over the years, as she played bigger venues and moral standards changed, Minnie became slightly more racy and much rowdier. Her costume has not been altered, however, and many of her one-liners are resurrected from scripts that are decades old. “All those dumb jokes,” she recalled in People. “They’re all old. They’re all dumb. The minute I look at a joke, it comes back to me.”
Minnie Pearl was nominated to the Country Music Hall of Fame fourteen times before she was finally inducted in 1975. The long wait for the industry’s highest honor was no doubt related to the fact that Minnie Pearl has done little real singing over the years; only once, in 1966, did she place a song, “The Answer to Giddyup Go,” on the country charts. Her inclusion in the Country Music Hall of Fame—and a subsequent Pioneer Award from the Academy of Country Music—reflect the fact that Minnie Pearl’s brand of hayseed comedy is an art form with a tradition as honorable as any musical one.
Having celebrated her fiftieth anniversary as Minnie Pearl in 1990, Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon plans to keep performing, at least on the Opry. Describing her character, whom she views as an eccentric sister, Colley Cannon said: “Minnie Pearl is just as wild as a can of crab. She’s nutty as a fruitcake. She doesn’t care whether school keeps or not. She’s great. I’m stupid, but she’s great. And the reason she’s great is because she doesn’t try to be serious. She just worries about whether we’re going to have the church social on Friday night or Saturday night or Sunday night. And about what she’s going to wear, and if a feller is going to kiss her on the way home. Most of the time he doesn’t. But she thinks next time he will.”
Minnie Pearl, Everest.
How To Catch a Man, RCA.
Cousin Minnie, Starday.
(With Grandpa Jones) Grand Ole Opry Stars, RCA.
(Contributor) Stars of the Grand Ole Opry, RCA.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977. Nash, Alanna, Behind Closed Doors: Talking with the Legends of Country Music, Knopf, 1988.
Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
Stambler, Irwin and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1969.
People, October 26, 1987.
—Anne Janette Johnson