Saturday 09 March 1996
For over half a century "Cousin" Minnie was among the most popular and beloved stars of Music City's WSM Grand Ole Opry radio show, and was one of a select group of performers able to lay claim to the status of "Nashville legend".
Strolling on to the Opry stage she would greet the audience with a shrill "Howdeee! I'm just so proud to be here!" before filling them in on her latest unsuccessful efforts to "ketch a feller". Her trademark was a wide-brimmed, beflowered straw hat, dangling a $1.98 price-tag. Nashville lore has it she had forgotten to remove it on her debut and retained it afterwards for good luck. In fact she always made her own hats.
Born in 1912, Pearl always claimed to have come from Grinder's Switch, Tennessee, in reality a railroad junction station just outside Centerville, the hometown of her alter ego and creator Sarah Ophelia Colley.
Passionately interested in vaudeville as a child, she studied stage technique at the exclusive Ward Belmont College, Nashville, graduating with a degree in speech and drama. From 1934 she worked for the Atlanta-based Wayne B. Sewell Co, directing amateur theatre productions throughout the region.
It was during this period that she began to develop her comic persona, observing and absorbing the characteristics and traits of people she encountered on her travels, notably those of an Alabama woman whom she always later cited as the original "Minnie Pearl". She auditioned in November 1940 for the famous radio barn dance The Grand Ole Opry, receiving a mere $10. Invited back the following Sunday she joined the regular cast.
Her arrival on the Opry coincided with a sea-change in its talent line- up as it moved away from a reliance on old-time string bands like the Crook Brothers, towards a roster of solo stars, notably her friend and mentor Roy Acuff. In 1943 she joined Ernest Tubb, Pee Wee King and other Opry stars as part of the "Camel Caravan" which toured military bases entertaining the troops, and in 1947 performed in the first country show held at Carnegie Hall in New York.
At the end of the war, the comedian Rod Brasfield joined the Opry cast and although his somewhat risque humour was at odds with Pearl's, they proved a popular double act until his death in 1958.
Despite her renown on radio and later television, Minnie Pearl never enjoyed much success as a singer. Although she cut sides for Everest, Starday and RCA - including "Papa Loves Mambo", a delightfully awful duet with Grandpa Jones - she broke into the Top Ten only once with "Giddy Up Go Answer" (1966), a response to Red Sovine's 1965 chart-topper.
Television however, first through Hee Haw and then The Nashville Network, brought her monologues and corny jokes into the homes of millions of Americans. In 1975 she received the genre's highest accolade, election to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Although latterly plagued by ill-health (she had a debilitating stroke in 1991), Pearl remained a revered figure; one whose example as the first major female star in country music was rightfully acknowledged by the generations of country women who have followed.
Sarah Ophelia Colley (Minnie Pearl), entertainer: born Centerville, Tennessee 25 October 1912; married 1947 Henry Cannon; died Nashville 4 March 1996.
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