Minnie Pearl, whose homespun humor and shrill “Howdyyyyy!” made her the first country comedian known worldwide, died Monday of complications from a stroke. She was 83.
Pearl, who was forced to give up performing after suffering a stroke in 1991, was admitted to Columbia Centennial Medical Center in Nashville on Feb. 25.
Her boisterous, cheerful “Howdyyyyy! I’m just so proud to be here,” her wide-brimmed straw hat with its dangling $1.98 price tag, her toothy grin, and her calico and gingham dresses were her trademarks on more than a half century of the Grand Ole Opry country music show and 20 years on the syndicated television show “Hee Haw.”
“I can just imagine Miss Minnie at the pearly gates with St. Peter, saying ‘Howdy, I’m just so proud to be here,”’ said Jerry Stroble, manager of the Grand Ole Opry House.
Much of Pearl’s humor focused on a longstanding search for a “feller.” A typical quip: “Kissing a feller with a beard is like a picnic. You don’t mind going through a little brush to get there.”
“Minnie Pearl” was a happy, hopeless character created from a composite of several women she had known early in her life.
In contrast to her stage role, Pearl, whose real name was Sarah Ophelia Cannon, was gracious, cultured and sensitive. She was married to Henry Cannon, her manager, and the couple lived next door to the Tennessee governor’s mansion in Nashville.
Pearl also sang and played the piano, but she was best known for her humor.
She was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1975 and was voted Country Music Woman of the Year in 1966 by the Country Music Association.
She was diagnosed with cancer in 1985 and underwent a double mastectomy. She recovered and continued to perform and do volunteer work with the American Cancer Society.
In 1987, she received the American Cancer Society’s Courage Award; in 1992, she was among 13 recipients of a National Medal of Art.
Looking back on her long career, she said in 1989, “It’s like wedding anniversaries - it seems forever and it seems like no time at all. It seems that I’ve always been on the Opry and that I’ve always been Minnie Pearl.”
Everyone from presidents to children gravitated to Pearl, and she was admired throughout the entertainment industry. Country singer Garth Brooks even named his daughter Taylor Mayne Pearl after her.