Sarah Ophelia Colley-Cannon, better known as Cousin Minnie Pearl, was the undisputed Queen of country comedy, performing on the Grand Ole Opry for 50 years. The State of Tennessee honored Minnie with the installation of a “Tennessee Music Pathways” marker in her hometown of Centerville, Tennessee. During the reveal, the crowd enjoyed a live performance of some of Minnie’s best jokes, with a dedication from local leaders who helped celebrate her memory.
Minnie's niece, Mary Beth Pruett, was the featured speaker along with a host of dignitaries from State Senator Kerry Roberts, Mayor Gary Jacobs, and the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development's Zach Ledbetter and Ashley DeRossett. Carlin Cochran performed as "Minnie" telling jokes and singing alongside her father Darin. The event was coordinated and organized and by Chamber Director Mandy King along with Chamber President Jane Ambrose-Herron.
She was born Sarah Ophelia Colley, the youngest of five daughters of a prosperous lumber magnate and his homemaker wife, who lost their fortune in the Great Depression. Aspiring to become an actress, twenty-two-year-old Ophelia (as she was then called) settled for a job as an itinerant community theater director for the Wayne P. Sewell Producing Company, traveling to rural southern cities and staging plays owned by the firm. While on the road in North Alabama, she met an older woman whose amusing country talk and mannerisms inspired Ophelia Colley to create a comic character that eventually became known as Minnie Pearl.
In the fall of 1940, a chance opportunity to perform at a banker’s convention in Centerville brought her to the attention of executives at radio station WSM in Nashville. On Nov. 30, 1940, she made her debut on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. Less than a week later, more than 300 cards, telegrams, and letters addressed to Minnie Pearl flooded the offices of WSM. On Dec. 7, 1940, the name Minnie Pearl appeared among the Opry cast listing for the first time in the weekly radio guide of the Nashville Tennessean newspaper, slotted in the 8:45 p.m. segment.
With the help of her sister Virginia and coaching from the Opry’s George D. Hay, Ophelia Colley gradually developed a fully-fledged comedic character and jokes to go with it. Minnie Pearl became the quintessential small-town spinster, preoccupied with chasing men and gossiping about her family and neighbors in the mythical town of Grinder’s Switch—Brother, Uncle Nabob and sometime boyfriend, Hezzie. In the spring of 1942, she graduated into the elite cast of the Opry when she joined the “Prince Albert Show,” the half-hour of the Opry broadcast over the NBC radio network. Not long after getting this promotion, she added a distinctive new touch to her act: the big “How-DEE!” At the request of the William Esty advertising agency that had the sponsor’s account, she went from a wallflower’s shy “Howdy” to a shouted “How-DEE!” that called for an audience response. It quickly became one of her trademarks.
She performed her last show in Joliet, Illinois, June 15 1991; two days later, she suffered a serious stroke that left her virtually bedridden in a Nashville nursing home for the next five years. When she died following a final series of strokes in 1996, all of Nashville, and indeed much of the world, mourned her passing. – Paul Kingsbury– Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.
PATHWAYS: Launched by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development in 2018, Tennessee Music Pathways is an online planning guide that connects visitors to the state’s rich musical heritage at tnmusicpathways.com. From the largest cities to the smallest communities, Tennessee Music Pathways stretches across all 95 counties and features hundreds of landmarks from the seven genres of music that call Tennessee home.