Minnie Pearl, a member of the Grand Ole Opry cast from 1940 until her death in 1996, was country music's preeminent comedian and one of the most widely recognized comic performers American culture has ever produced. With her straw hat and its dangling $1.98 price tag, her representation of herself as a man-chasing spinster in the small town of Grinder's Switch, TN, and her great-hearted holler of "How-DEE! I'm just so proud to be here" as she took to the Opry stage, Pearl became an icon of rural America even as she lovingly satirized its ways.
Cousin Minnie Pearl grew up among people quite different from the Uncle Nabob, Brother, and boyfriend Hezzie who populated her comic routines. Born Sarah Ophelia Colley, she was the daughter of a prosperous lumberman in Centerville, TN, and she attended tony Ward-Belmont College in Nashville as a theater major. As a young woman she favored classical music, not country. In college she focused especially on her dance classes, which would serve her well as she developed her top-notch stage presence, and after college she taught dance for several years. Then she took a job as a dramatic coach with a touring theater company based in Atlanta. As the group barnstormed through the Depression-era south, she would try to promote the group's shows by making brief appearances at local Lions' clubs and the like. She hit on a routine in which she delivered an impression of a small-town girl, Minnie Pearl, and then began to amplify the impression with traits she observed in people she met along the way. By 1939, the Minnie Pearl character was well developed, but Colley had to return to Centerville that year to help care for her ill mother.
In 1940 Colley appeared at a banking convention in Centerville at which some of the executives of the Opry's host station, WSM, happened to be in attendance. One suggested that she audition for the Opry, and despite the misgivings of Opry managers that she might be seen as ridiculing country people, she was accepted for a late-evening slot. Several hundred cards and letters addressed to Minnie Pearl arrived at the station over the following weeks, and her place in the cast was assured. "I don't think people think of her so much as a show business act as a friend," Colley would later observe.
During World War II, Pearl toured with the Camel Caravan, and she married Nashville pilot Henry Cannon in 1947. She authored a cookbook and became a prominent figure in Nashville social circles under the name of Sarah Cannon. But her greatest fame came from her Opry performances, some of which were broadcast nationally when the show hit prime time in the 1940s. In the late '40s and early '50s, Pearl often worked as part of a duo with comedian Rod Brasfield, and by 1957 she was famous enough to be featured on NBC television's This Is Your Life program.
Pearl went on to make many more television appearances in the '60s and '70s, eventually joining the cast of the hillbilly-themed variety show Hee Haw. That show made varied use of her comedic talents, featuring her in such segments as "Driving Miss Minnie" in addition to her usual Grinder's Switch settings. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1975. Pearl was still a television fixture in the 1980s, when she appeared on TNN's Nashville Now. She also toured the country for much of her career and made a number of recordings. One of them, the recitation "Giddyup Go Answer," a rejoinder to Red Sovine's sentimental trucker number, became a Top Ten hit. Performing into the 1990s, Pearl suffered a stroke in 1991 and died five years later. ~ James Manheim