Minnie Pearl was such an outsized presence on the Grand Ole Opry for half a century that it’s only fitting that the 100th anniversary of her birth has been marked a myriad of ways: A special Opry show with Vince Gill, Jimmy Dickens, Mel Tillis and other musical and comedic performers, a spotlight exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and flashy fundraisers for the nonprofit that bears her name, the Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation.
The National Banana Pudding Festival in her fictional hometown of Grinder’s Switch even created a banana mascot in her image. And, yes, that meant the cartoon fruit sported her down-home dress and straw hat with dangling price tag. (Grinder’s Switch is literally a railroad switch outside Centerville, Tenn., the real-life hometown of Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, who played Pearl. She was born Oct. 25, 1912.)
No matter who’s wearing it, that silly signature headgear is all it takes to make people think of Pearl. She’s a bona fide icon whose popularity spanned several different generations in her own lifetime and whose visibility endures a decade and a half beyond her death in 1996 at the age of 83.
In their book Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, Robert Oermann and Mary Bufwack noted that Pearl was the only woman on the Opry cast when she joined in 1940 and the only one whose stardom carried over into the modern age of country entertainment.
Considering how much audience sensibilities and expectations changed between the time she landed a slot on the Prince Albert Show — the only segment of the Opry that was broadcast over the NBC Radio Network — and her days on Hee Haw, that’s no small achievement.
What many people don’t realize about Pearl’s story is that Cannon, the woman beneath the hat, had set her sights on a more, shall we say, elevated acting career. She first came to Nashville to study theatre and music at Ward-Belmont College and had never even been to the Opry (or been much of a fan of country music) before she was invited to try out her act on its stage. Her family was well-off and far from hillbilly, and her model for Pearl was an exuberant woman she stayed with in rural Alabama while she was traveling and organizing amateur musical theater.
Tillis did a tour with Pearl in 1957 and got to know the woman he still refers to as “Miss Minnie” both in and out of character.
“Well, she was real proper about things, you know, well-educated,” he says. “She was completely different than her character, Minnie Pearl. She was completely different from that. But very nice and very brilliant.”
When Pearl performed her trademark song-and-dance numbers, like “Jealous Hearted Me,” she more or less did the opposite of what her formal training had taught her do to, shrilly belting the melody on purpose with an irrepressible grin on her face.
Says Tillis, “She had an upright piano, and she’d get over there on the stool and sit down, and she’d do all kinds of funny things and just sing as loud as she could sing. … Boy, she would pound them keys. Me and Roger [Miller, who was playing fiddle for her at the time] would just be standing back in awe watching her.”
Everywhere Pearl went, including The Tonight Show, her act went over, and audience members of varied backgrounds embraced her as one of their own. No matter how tiny a town they hailed from, Grinder’s Switch was tinier, and no matter how “uncultured” their kinfolk might be, the antics of Uncle Nabob, Brother and Hezzie that she faithfully reported were loonier by a mile.
Pearl’s most endearing gag — whether she was betting a male performer 50 cents that she could kiss him from three feet away or playfully interrupting Dolly Parton’s presentation of the CMA male vocalist of the year award in hopes of getting a date with “one of the five beautiful specimens of masculinity” — was that she was a spinster who couldn’t snag a man but never gave up hope at any age.
Says Loyal Jones, author of Country Music Humorists and Comedians, “There was this thing about country comedy, and probably vaudeville, too. The ‘old geezer’ could do and say anything and get away with it, the Archie Campbell type or Grandpa Jones. But there weren’t very many women who were playing that. … Her persona was one of innocence, I think, the old maid looking for a feller. And that was acceptable. You always have to remember that comedy had to be really pretty clean in those days because people brought their children and their girlfriends and their mama and daddy and grandpa to these shows. You could make some fun of gender relationships and you could make some bathroom jokes. But you couldn’t go too far.
“She was never accused of being loose or immoral,” he adds with a chuckle. “She just wanted a feller, you know.”
Cannon — or Pearl, as the whole world best knows her — certainly put her performing gifts to use even if it wasn’t in the way she’d originally envisioned. Recalls Tillis, who went from being her young protégé to eventually joining her in the Country Music Hall of Fame, “I watched her timing. She told me, ‘Melvin, don’t step on your laughter. It’s too hard to get.’”