Sarah Colley was born in Centerville, in Hickman County, Tennessee, about 50 miles (80 km) southwest of Nashville. She was the youngest of the five daughters of a prosperous lumberman in Centerville. She graduated from Ward-Belmont College (now Belmont University), at the time Nashville’s most prestigious school for young ladies, where her major was theater studies and dance was a particular interest. After graduation she taught dance for several years.
Her first professional theatrical job was with the Wayne P. Sewell Production Company, a touring theater company based in Atlanta, for which she produced and directed plays and musicals for local organizations in small towns throughout the southeastern United States.
As part of her work with the Sewell company, she made brief appearances at civic organizations to promote the group’s shows. She developed her Minnie Pearl routine during this period. While producing an amateur musical comedy in Baileyton, Alabama, she met a mountain woman whose style and talk became the basis for “Cousin Minnie Pearl”. Her first stage performance as Minnie Pearl was in 1939 in Aiken, South Carolina. The now famous hat was purchased downtown at Surasky Bros. Department store prior to the show. The following year, executives from Nashville radio station WSM saw her perform at a bankers’ convention in Centerville and gave her an opportunity to appear on the Grand Ole Opry on November 30, 1940. The success of her debut on the show began an association with the Grand Ole Opry that continued for more than 50 years.
Pearl’s comedy was gentle satire of rural Southern culture, often called “hillbilly” culture. Pearl always dressed in styleless “down home” dresses and wore a hat with a price tag hanging from it, displaying the price of $1.98. Her catch phrase was “How-w-w-DEE-E-E-E! I’m jes’ so proud to be here!” delivered in a loud holler. After she became an established star, her audiences usually shouted “How-w-w-DEE-E-E-E!” back. Pearl’s humor was often self-deprecating, and involved her unsuccessful attempts at attracting the attention of “a feller” and, particularly in later years, her age. She also told monologues involving her comical ‘ne’er-do-well’ relatives, notably “Uncle Nabob”, his wife “Aunt Ambrosia”, “Lucifer Hucklehead”, “Miss Lizzie Tinkum”, “Doc Payne”, and, of course, her “Brother”, who was simultaneously both slow-witted and wise. She usually closed her monologues with the exit line, “I love you so much it hurts!” She also sang comic novelty songs. She often danced with Grandpa Jones.
Pearl’s comic material derived heavily from her hometown of Centerville, which in her act she called Grinder’s Switch. Grinder’s Switch is a community just outside of Centerville that consisted of little more than a railroad switch. Those who knew her recognized that the characters were largely based on real residents of Centerville. So much traffic resulted from fans and tourists looking for Grinder’s Switch that the Hickman County Highway Department eventually changed the designation on the “Grinder’s Switch” road sign to “Hickman Springs Road.”
Cannon portrayed Minnie Pearl for many years on television, first on ABC’s Ozark Jubilee in the late 1950s; then on the long-running television series Hee Haw, both on CBS and the subsequent syndicated version. She made several appearances on NBC’s The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford. Her last regular performances on national television were on Ralph Emery’s Nashville Now country-music talk show on the former The Nashville Network (TNN) cable channel. With Emery she performed in a weekly feature, “Let Minnie Steal Your Joke,” in the Minnie Pearl character and read jokes submitted by viewers, with prizes for the best jokes. Cannon made a cameo appearance in the film Coal Miner’s Daughter, in which she appears at the Opry as her Minnie Pearl character.
On February 23, 1947 Sarah Colley married Henry R. Cannon, who had been an Army Air Corps fighter pilot during World War II and was then a partner in an air charter service. After the marriage, Henry Cannon set up his own air charter service for country music performers and took over management of the Minnie Pearl character. His clients in the charter service included Eddy Arnold, Colonel Tom Parker,Hank Williams, Carl Smith, Webb Pierce, and Elvis Presley. The couple had no children. In 1969 they purchased a large estate home in Nashville next door to the Tennessee Governor’s mansion. Cannon attended Brentwood Methodist Church, just to the south of Nashville where she also donated the organ.
In the late 1960s Nashville entrepreneur John Jay Hooker persuaded Cannon and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to lend their names to a chain of fried chicken restaurants established to compete with Kentucky Fried Chicken. After initially reporting good results and enjoying a public stock worth $64 million, the venture collapsed amid allegations of accounting irregularities and stock price manipulation. The ensuing investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission cleared both Cannon and Jackson of involvement in financial wrongdoings, but both were embarrassed by the negative publicity.
After battling breast cancer through aggressive treatments including a double mastectomy and radiation therapy, she became a spokeswoman for the medical center in Nashville where she had been treated. She took on this role as herself, Sarah Ophelia Cannon, not Minnie Pearl, although a nonprofit group, the Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation, was founded in her memory to help fund cancer research. The center where she was treated was later named the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center, and has been expanded to several other hospitals in Middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky. Her name has also been lent to the affiliated Sarah Cannon Research Insitute.
Pearl suffered a serious stroke in June 1991, bringing her performing career to an end. After the stroke she resided in a Nashville nursing home where she received frequent visits from country music industry figures, including Chely Wright, Vince Gill and Amy Grant. Her death on March 4, 1996, at the age of 83, was attributed to complications from another stroke. She is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Franklin, Tennessee.
She was an important influence on younger female country music singers and rural humorists such as Jerry Clower, Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, Carl Hurley, David L Cook, Chonda Pierce, Ron White and Larry the Cable Guy. In 1992, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts. In 2002 she was ranked as number 14 on CMT’s 40 Greatest Women in Country Music list.
She was friends with performers outside the country genre, including Dean Martin (she appeared on an episode of The Dean Martin Show), and Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman). In 1992, Reubens made what would be his last appearance as Pee-wee Herman for 15 years at a Minnie Pearl tribute show. Bronze statues of Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff are displayed in the lobby of the Ryman Auditorium. Chely Wright and Dean Sams (of Lonestar) posed for the statues.
A museum dedicated to Minnie Pearl was situated just outside the Grand Ole Opry House at Opryland USA (next to another museum dedicated to Roy Acuff), but the museum closed along with the theme park in 1997. Many of its artifacts were moved to the adjacent Grand Ole Opry Museum, some of which may have been damaged in the 2010 Tennessee floods.
- October, 25, 1912
- Centerville, Tennessee
- March, 04, 1996
- Nashville, Tennessee
Cause of Death
- Mount Hope Cemetery
- Franklin, Tennessee