1912 – 1996
For over 50 years, fans of the Grand Ole Opry would hear a cheerful “How-DEE!” over the airwaves courtesy of the legendary country comedian, Minnie Pearl.
Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon created the character of Minnie Pearl, who always wore worn-in shoes and a straw hat with flowers and a $1.98 price tag, as a satire of the Southern small town culture she grew up in. In addition to becoming an iconic fixture of the Grand Ole Opry, Colley played her Minnie Pearl character on the TV show HEE HAW for over twenty years.
Cannon was born the fifth daughter of a lumberman in Centerville, Tennessee, about 50 miles from Nashville. She attended school in Nashville, studying theater and dance at what is now Belmont University.
Her Minnie Pearl character originated in South Carolina in 1939, and after catching the attention of a WSM executive, she debuted on the Grand Ole Opry in 1940, quickly gaining a regular spot that lasted over 50 years.
Cannon married air charter pilot Henry Cannon in 1947. She was active in the Nashville community, regularly attending the Brentwood Methodist Church.
The simplicity of the humor and demeanor of Minnie Pearl endeared her to fans of all ages. Cannon is considered a pioneer in the genre of country comedy, especially for women.
“Most women comics don’t want to get down on the level of the country girl who makes a fool of herself. I understand that,” Cannon said. “But for one time I’d like them to get inside Minnie Pearl’s skin and see what fun she has, because she really has a great time. She’s as nutty as a fruitcake and wild as a can of crab. And she’s very happy.”
Her routines featured a rotating cast of regular “characters,” like her Uncle Nabob, Aunt Ambrosia, Doc Payne, and her brother, who had the same style of country wisdom as Minnie. She also sang songs, danced, and reminisced about her invented hometown of Grinder’s Switch. She also often played off of fellow Opry icon and long-time performer Roy Acuff.
“I’ve always said I envied Minnie Pearl. She’s a part of me, but at the same time, she never has any financial concerns, and she never worries about whether she might have performed less than her best,” Cannon said.
Unlike Minnie’s, Cannon’s life was not without worry. Later in life, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After undergoing radiation and a double mastectomy, Cannon became a spokesperson for the Nashville medical center where she underwent treatment, and funded a nonprofit group that helps fund cancer research, The Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation. The Sarah Cannon Cancer Center and Research Institute has expanded from Nashville to other hospitals in Tennessee and Kentucky. She became an advocate for cancer awareness and early detection.
She continued performing until suffering a stroke in 1991, and spending her final years in a nursing home, until passing away in 1996.
Her legacy lives on in countless ways at the Grand Ole Opry—a memorial fountain at the artists’ entrance, her shoes encased and displayed by the membership wall, and life-size statues of her and her longtime Opry collaborator Roy Acuff greet patrons at the Ryman Auditorium.