Originally published in the August 6, 1996 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
Alanna Nash, veteran country music and entertainment writer and author of several books, first met Minnie Pearl’s alter ego, Sarah Colley Cannon, in 1975. Over the years, they developed a friendship that lasted until Sarah’s death March 4 at age 83 from complications of a stroke. Nash recalls her legendary friend in this article written especially for Country Weekly.
If Minnie Pearl was everyone’s slightly dizzy grandmother, Sarah Cannon was a trusted confidante and adviser.
She had a heart as big as the Opry stage. I realized this in our first interview at her home, when she reminisced about long-gone friends Hank Williams (“such a lonely man”) and Elvis Presley (“so encapsulated in his fame”), and how she wished she could have helped them.
When many of the town’s old guard bristled at Hank Williams Jr. and his rowdy ways, Minnie extended him her friendship and understanding. And when I asked her for help in promoting a book, she sent a handwritten postcard that said she would see what she could do about getting it mentioned on TNN.
Anyone who knew her recognized instantly that as loud, as naive and as hayseed as Minnie Pearl was, Sarah Colley Cannon — the real lady behind the character — was cultured and reserved, the very model of a genteel Southern lady. While Nashville society looks down its nose at most country music performers, it always considered Sarah Cannon to occupy another category, partly because her mother’s great-great-grandfather was an uncle of President James K. Polk, and partly because she was active in local civic affairs. Her home, which she shared with her husband of nearly 50 years, Henry Cannon, the owner of a charter flying service, was furnished in expensive and tasteful decor and located next to the governor’s mansion in an exclusive section of Nashville. She mastered the art of moving effortlessly between two social circles, but better still, she never lost her folksiness with the Opry cast.
Minnie was full of wonderful stories about the greats she had known and worked with, and whenever I needed help on a profile, I called her.
Roy Acuff once tried to back out on our scheduled interview, complaining, “All you reporters ask the same questions. If you could just think of something different to talk about . . . ”
I called Minnie for suggestions, and she came up with two great pieces of information: That for all the talk of country music performers being one big family, Roy, whom she called her “best friend,” had never invited her to his home to visit, only for parties. She also told me that Roy had already bought his cemetery plot, and often went there to think and talk to his parents.
Questions about these topics brought terrific responses from Roy and saved my interview.
The most fascinating stories Minnie told in our six interviews from 1975 to 1990 were about herself — how she separated Minnie and Sarah in her mind, about the joys and regrets of her life, and the zealous faith with which she faced her mounting health concerns. Here’s a sample of the philosophy that carried her through.
On her alter-ego relationship with Minnie:
“In all these years, Minnie Pearl never hurt anybody’s feelings, because she was a thoroughly nice person. She never faced any abrasive situations. I have to walk down concourses in airports, but she’s carried everywhere she goes. She lies dormant in the garment bag, and when she comes onstage, she’s rested.
“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.
“I’ve had so many occasions when I was uptight about an appearance. And I’ve had the funny feeling when I’d start to go on the stage that she turned to me and said, `Don’t worry. You leave this to me, and we’ll both be all right.’ Which is what I try to do.
“She’s been quite an inspiration to me — a role model. In fact, I’d like to be more like her.”
As a child growing up in Centerville, Tenn., Sarah Ophelia Colley wanted to be a serious dramatic actress, not a comedienne.
The Colleys could hardly afford a $1,200 school tuition — her father had lost his lumber business during the crash of 1929. But the family still packed young Sarah off to Nashville’s Ward-Belmont College, a two-year finishing school with a strong dramatics department.
There, embarrassed at not having the clothes and the niceties the other girls had, Sarah, who played the piano, sang and demonstrated a flair for comedy, relied on her outgoing personality to win friends. Underneath, she hid a world of pain.
On her sorrows and regrets:
“I didn’t want to play comedy. Never thought of playing comedy. I knew that people had a tendency to laugh at me when I meant to be serious, but I didn’t know what God was trying to tell me. He was nudging me. When I was growing up, all my family flattered and complimented me. I was the last of five girls and everybody spoiled me and told me I was cute and funny. I think they even told me I was pretty, which of course was not entirely true.”
The character Minnie Pearl was born of a cruel remark made by one of her mother’s friends who had come calling at her house. Young Sarah, then 6 or 7 years old, greeted them, seated them in the library and left the room.
“They couldn’t see me and they thought I’d gone out to play. But I stopped to look at something in the hall and I heard one of them say, `She’s a plain little thing, isn’t she?’
“Well, it just broke my heart. From then on, I began thinking of myself as plain. I never thought I was pretty again. And I think that’s where Minnie Pearl started.
“I met a lot of country girls who wanted to be funny, and wanted to be loved and to love people. Sort of pathetic in a way, these girls, because the real thing that a woman wants more than anything else is to be beautiful.”
That early slight took on added weight and poignancy when Sarah, at 17, was forced into a beauty contest by her mother when another girl suffered an accident.
“Those good-looking, pretty girls said, with utter amazement, `What are *you* doing here?!’ If that won’t tell it to you, nothing will. And I said, `I’m taking this girl’s place who fell and broke her leg.’ Then they said, `*You’re* not going to be in the *beauty* contest?’ And you know, they didn’t mean to be cruel. They just couldn’t believe I’d go out there.”
The master of ceremonies hadn’t even been told of the switch: “He was a pretty funny ol’ boy, anyway, and he said, `And now, representing the Centerville Ice Company . . .’ and he looked up and said, `*Ophelia Colley*?!’
“Well, that didn’t help my entrance too much. And everybody said, `Oh, *no!’ and laughed and slapped their thighs. I walked off that night and I thought, `God *knows* that hurt. I’ll never make it.’
“But then I went on to college, where my dramatics teacher said, `Colley, you have no sense of humor. And you have no talent.’ And that time, I fought back, because I knew somewhere along the line there was going to be a vehicle. Most humor is born as a defense mechanism, with women particularly.
“I was working with Edgar Bergen one time, and Mr. Bergen tried to sell me Mortimer Snerd, his dummy. Mortimer was this funny, old country character. And Mr. Bergen said, `Mortimer, you’ve been wanting a nice young lady to go out with, and now you’re lucky, ’cause here’s Miss Minnie Pearl.’
”And he turned the head and the dummy looked at me and Mortimer said, `No, no, Bergen. Thanks a lot, but no, no.’ Mortimer would have none of me. And I just thought, `To be turned down by Burt Reynolds was nothing strange. But to be turned down by Mortimer Snerd is *really* bad.’ ”
There were deeper hurts and regrets in her life, and she was not shy about communicating them.
“I guess the biggest disappointment in my life was not having children. But career-wise, there have been many. That’s what show business is made up of, disappointments. And it’s through those disappointments that you grow. I never asked for sympathy, but I cried a lot to myself.
“People don’t realize that I’ve had a lot of disappointments, because they only see me in a bright concept. But I always wanted my own network show. And I wanted to do a dramatic role, something on Broadway or on TV or in the movies, some good cameo role. And I wanted a record [other than my comedy records], probably a recitation.”
She was also sorry that she had no heir apparent in the business. While she offered advice and encouragement to several young women through the years (particularly to Sylvia Harney Wydick, who was as close to a protegee as she ever had), it saddened her that as country music’s popularity grew, promoters “don’t feel that the metropolitan audiences really go for the country comedy. And there’s not one single girl coming along right now who wants to play it.
“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. 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 nutty as a fruitcake and wild as a can of crab. And she’s very happy.”
Her joys were many, beginning with her husband, who managed her career. Henry Cannon was always first in her life, and she let him make the major decisions of the household.
She was also intensely happy to be in show business — something she’d wanted from childhood — and proud of being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1975. “Nobody of a comedic nature had gone into the Hall of Fame until I went into it,” she said.
Receiving the American Cancer Society’s Courage Award, which was presented to her by President Ronald Reagan at the White House in 1987, also gave her much happiness. She did a lot of volunteer work for the society and for other charitable organizations because, she said, “I think every one of us has a social responsibility and a moral obligation to be as kind to people as we can.
“Because we have a short time here. I think God expects us to do the best we can to make this world a little better place in which to live.”
In 1985, she had a double mastectomy for breast cancer. Although Henry didn’t like her to talk about it publicly (“He just thinks it’s a private matter”), she felt a duty to encourage other women to have regular mammograms. It was one of the few times she went against Henry’s wishes.
Four years later, I asked her to let me help her write a first-person story in which she spoke out to women. At first she declined, then she consented, telling me years later with pride that she learned that at least two women went in for mammograms as a result — and found malignancies that might have otherwise gone undetected.
When she required a pacemaker in 1991 for fainting spells due to a congenital heart arrhythmia, I called her at the hospital. She insisted she wouldn’t let it slow her down. Her doctors had promised the pacemaker scar wouldn’t show beneath the neckline of her costumes.
By that time, she had entered semiretirement and had long quit her rigorous schedule of one-nighters on the road. Well into the 1980s, she had continued to tape *Hee Haw*, and on Friday nights appeared on both the Grand Ole Opry and TNN’s *Nashville Now*.
She didn’t miss the traveling. She was fond of saying, “I’m living the life now of a suburban matron,” having ladies over for lunch and playing bridge and tennis. “I wanted to get back to the normal world.”
But whenever she stayed away too long, she missed her 20 minutes onstage, the camaraderie of show people and particularly the fans, whom she called “the most loyal people in the world.” She also did a TV commercial for a floor detergent in part to “test my mind to see if it’ll still hold. I’ve worked seriously through my latter years to see that my mind *does* stay alert.”
Sadly, in 1991 Minnie suffered a stroke. It was apparently worse than most people knew. The following year, she missed attending a White House ceremony in which she was to receive a National Medal of Arts. About that time, I asked Ralph Emery how she was doing. He reported she had paralysis on her left side and would never have the use of her left arm again. Although her speech was not impaired, she couldn’t hold her head up — it fell off to the right — and her voice was weak.
“Her nurse told me, `Minnie lives for the day that she can walk onstage one more time, unaided,’ ” Ralph said. But it was not to be. After intensive therapy at home, she was moved to a Nashville retirement center.
Not long before she suffered her second, fatal stroke, I sent her a get-well card and back came a pink postcard with “Minnie” stamped at the top in green. The handwriting was someone else’s, but the message might as well have come from her. “Thank you for your love,” it said.
No, Minnie, we thank you for yours.