May 26, 2008
She only had one chart hit in her whole career, a spoken-word answer song to Red Sovine’s “Giddyup Go.” But through the sheer force of her character-driven comedy, she became a country music icon all the same, one of the most instantly recognizable faces in the history of country music.
She made her name playing a simple country character, but Sarah Ophelia Colley came from money. She was the youngest of five daughters. Her father was a sawmill owner, but when the Depression hit, his business was hurt. This was just the time that Sarah was coming of age, so instead of attending college, she went to Ward-Belmont finishing school in Nashville, which would later become Belmont University. She was smitten with theater, and after graduation she joined the Sewell Company, touring the south as part of their cast.
In the winter of 1936, she prepared for a production of Flapper Grandmother by staying with a hillbilly mountain woman for a few days. This was the first time the well-bred Sarah met genuine country folk, and she was deeply shaped by the experience. Soon, she was playing a character based on the woman she had stayed with. She was coached to teach in a hillbilly accent by members of her company, and she also learned how to sing off-key for comedic effect. By 1938, she had selected the name Minnie Pearl for her character, and after a trip to a thrift store in South Carolina, she had her trademark costume – minus the price tag on her hat, which she would add in later years.
When the touring company work dried up, she moved back to her hometown of Centerville, Tennessee. In the fall of 1940, she auditioned for a guest spot on the Grand Ole Opry. The managers were afraid that the audience would think she was making fun of their country lifestyle, and put her on in the final hour of the Opry broadcast, which wasn’t included in the national part of the show. She did three minutes of comedy. The Opry received more than 300 letters of positive feedback. She was asked to join the cast, becoming the first female Opry member.
She was warmly embraced by the cast, and after touring with Pee Wee King during the war, her popularity skyrocketed. She was happy to make herself the butt of the joke, playing an old maid character from fictional Grinder’s Switch. “How-Deeee!” became her catchphrase, and she used it not only on the Opry, but on television shows in the fifties. She recorded her routines for several labels, and published best-selling books as well.
In 1966, she had her only chart hit, “Giddyup Go (Answer),” which went to No. 10. When Hee Haw launched in the early seventies, she became a regular on the sketch comedy. In 1975, she became the second woman inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. She became widely known for her charity work. She teamed with Elvis Presley to raise money for a national monument in Pearl Harbor, and she appeared on Comic Relief to help the homeless. When she survived a bout with breast cancer, she became a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society.
Since her death in 1996, a major void has existed in country music, with the industry’s leading comedienne and the Opry’s den mother gone. Her good work has continued, however, through the Sarah Connor Cancer Center and the Sarah Connor Research Institute, a fitting legacy for a woman who was defined nearly as much by her charity as she was by her classic comedy.
- “Giddyup Go (Answer),” 1966
- Howdy!, 1950
- Country Western Caravan, 1954
- America’s Beloved Minnie Pearl, 1965
- Country Music Hall of Fame, 1975
- ACM Pioneer Award, 1987