100 Greatest Women, #40: Minnie Pearl

100 Greatest Women

#40

Minnie Pearl

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.

Minnie Pearl

Essential Singles

  • “Giddyup Go (Answer),” 1966

Essential Albums

  • Howdy!, 1950
  • Country Western Caravan, 1954
  • America’s Beloved Minnie Pearl, 1965

Industry Awards

  • Country Music Hall of Fame, 1975
  • ACM Pioneer Award, 1987

==> #39. June Carter Cash

<== #41. Lucinda Williams

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8 Comments

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8 Responses to 100 Greatest Women, #40: Minnie Pearl

  1. Minnie Pearl an excellent choice for starting your Top 40. Pam Tillis once said Minnie Pearl tried to talk her into become a comedian instead of singer. Kevin, I think you will agree with me when I say I am glad Pam did not take Minnie’s advice.

  2. LeeannNo Gravatar

    In so many interviews, I have heard artists mention her with affection. It seems that she really served as a spiritual guide to a lot of them.

  3. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    Minnie Pearl was probably the most beloved figure in the history of country music. While her memory is fading from the public consciousness, there are available any number of DVDs where she appears and King has a 3 CD set of live Opry appearances (songs and comic routines). While she clearly belongs in the top 40 , I think she belongs much higher

  4. charlieNo Gravatar

    I am only slightly familiar with Pearl, but I am wondering if Cledus T. Judd or Jeff Foxworthy would be similarly respected on a 100 greatest men list? I know that these guys did not have the impact that Pearl probably did on up-and-comers, as well as on the Opry and they aren’t legends. But, Jeff Foxworthy is (or was) arguably as popular nationally as Pearl, and is a comedian who also has charted songs with Marty Stuart, Alan Jackson and Tim Rushlow. Foxworthy also came from more well-off beginnings before adopting a stage persona which is much more hillbilly/redneck. Would these guys rank among the 40 greatest men? This isn’t an argument, so much as a question to help me better understand Pearl’s place on the list.

  5. Charlie,

    With Minnie, it was a matter of balancing her iconic status as an Opry legend/television star with the fact that she created very little music. Your argument that a comedienne is an odd choice for such a list is legitimate, as are those who are saying she should be much higher because of her iconic status and den mother role to younger artists.

    When CMT did their list of the 40 Greatest Women, she was #14. You can’t tell the story of women in country music without talking about Minnie Pearl. I think when this entire list is done, where I’ve ranked her will make more sense. I suspect the list will be stepping on quite a bit more toes, which is inevitable!

  6. CharlieNo Gravatar

    Thanks Kevin. Did she make it out on stage during that “everything we got, we got the hard way” performance or had she passed by then?

  7. RickNo Gravatar

    The legacy of Minnie Pearl lives on in a way in the form of a young Canadian country singer named Tammy Dee Gislason who sometimes performs in the guise of “Tammy Pearl”. Tammy is primarily a cowgirl singer and yodeler (and a darn good one to boot) and has been working for awhile now at the “Fiddler’s Feast Mountain Legacy Theater” attraction in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. I doubt her singing duties at the theater allow the “Tammy Pearl” persona to emerge very often, but it sounds like the perfect locale……..

  8. TomNo Gravatar

    Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t the name of this listing “100 Greatest Women” NOT “100 Greatest Female Vocalists”??? Therefore, it is absolutely ridiculous to place the truly legendary Minnie Pearl at only #40. Minnie was by far the biggest female star in country music during the 1940′s and she remained a household name for the rest of her life and was very well known with millions of people who didn’t know Connie Smith from Carl Smith or Jean Shepard from Gene Watson.

    “Country music” is not just singers, it’s comedians, songwriters, and instrumentalists. You didn’t even bother to list Del Wood who was one of the very few female instrumentalists in any genre to make a major name for herself. Shame!

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