A friend and I swap books because we both enjoy memoirs and biographies, particularly those dealing with the entertainment industries.
Our friend lives in Virginia so when we visit two or three times a year, I take a few books to him then I excitedly climb to his upstairs study, muse over the titles carefully and happily pull out books to carry home. It’s much like visiting a library. So much fun.
On our last visit, I spotted an autobiography by country comedienne, Minnie Pearl.
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “This will be great!” I flipped through the pages and discovered that it was a first edition, personalized by Minnie. Our friend is Don Reid, of country music’s much beloved Statler Brothers. Minnie had been a close friend of the Statlers and lovingly taught them about entertainment.
“Always put a new joke in the middle of tried and true material. Then, if the new joke fails, it won’t matter,” she had told the guys when she worked with them.
I closed the book. “I can’t borrow this,” I said sadly. “It’s a personalized copy.” I started to put it back.
Don insisted. “Please, take it. You’ll really enjoy it and I know you’ll take good care of it. She was a wonderful woman.”
Though hesitant, I took it and I’m so glad that I did. It turned out to be one of the gentlest, kindest books I’ve ever read. Published in 1980, while Minnie was still performing weekly on the Grand Ole Opry and doing television, the book is now out of print. But you can find it at libraries and online sellers who deal in used books. For a few dollars, you can escape a cold, cruel world and find the kind-hearted world of Minnie Pearl.
For decades, she was the best known comedian to country and blue collar audiences. Born Sarah Ophelia Colley, an early job took her into Tennessee’s backwoods, where she discovered a hospitable Appalachian woman who, later, would become the sole inspiration for the character of Minnie Pearl, a country woman who turned the joke on herself.
When Sarah’s revered father, a successful businessman, was first entertained (in the family living room) by his daughter doing Minnie Pearl, he instructed, “You’ll make a fortune off that one day if you keep it kind.”
“I always tried to follow his advice,” she wrote “and keep it kind.”
Jeff Foxworthy says, “It’s a lot harder to write clean jokes.” Minnie Pearl was a creator of that kind of comedy and it paid off well. She was an early member of the Opry, best friends with Roy Acuff, and a road warrior who piled into a car with five guys, cramped tighter by instruments, and traveled over rough, undeveloped roads from one engagement to another.
Her “signatures” became a hat with a price tag hanging down — she accidentally forget to remove the tag from a new hat and it became such a gag that night that she decided to keep it — and a shrill, “Howdy! I’m just so proud to be here!” For the entire life of her character, she wore the same pair of black Mary Jane shoes.
Miss Sarah was already pretty well situated in what people of those days called “an old maid” when she met a dashing wartime pilot named Henry Cannon and created one of Nashville’s most successful marriages.
The Cannons, much to their sadness, never had children. Her comedy and his business genius, as both her manager and the owner of an aviation service, created great wealth. Minnie had battled breast cancer and her beloved sister died from cancer. So, when the Cannons died — a couple of years apart in the 1990s — their tremendous estate was left to create Nashville’s Sarah Cannon Cancer Care and Research Center, one of the most cutting edge cancer treatment centers in America.
Minnie Pearl’s trademark kindness will live on forever.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column appears Saturdays and on www.gainesvilletimes.com.