Minnie Pearl 100th Birthday: Vince Gill, Amy Grant Among Those Celebrating Comic’s Legacy
Comedic entertainer Minnie Pearl once famously said of fans, "Just love 'em and they'll love you right back." Proving that credo true in Nashville on Monday night (Oct. 22), a group of 200 of her friends, fellow entertainers and people whose lives were touched by the country-music legend gathered on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry House to celebrate not only the homespun comic known for the hat with the dangling $1.98 price tag, but also the remarkable woman who created the Minnie Pearl character, Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, whose 100th birthday will be marked on Thursday, Oct. 25.
Vince Gill, Amy Grant, the Oak Ridge Boys, Brenda Lee, "Hee Haw" stars Roy Clark and LuLu Roman and Opry legend Jeannie Seely were among those on hand to share personal reminiscences of both Minnie Pearl and Sarah Cannon, with music and video tributes throughout the night. The Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation, founded in 1987 and given the performer's name with her blessing after she survived cancer in 1992, was the beneficiary of the evening's ticket sales, with proceeds helping to fund the organization in their efforts to support adults dealing with a cancer diagnosis.
In addition to video presentations from Dolly Parton, Marty Stuart and others, musical selections were offered by the Oaks, who performed a spine-chilling "Amazing Grace" and LuLu Roman, who sang a soulful "At Last," after sharing the story of the day Sarah first met future husband Henry Cannon, who immediately insisted he would marry her one day, much to her initial horror. At the time of her death in 1996, the couple had been married 49 years.
Comedienne Anita Renfroe shared Minnie's influence on her as a young girl growing up watching her on television, Vince Gill performed Minnie's favorite song, "You Are My Sunshine," and Senator Lamar Alexander (the Cannon's former next-door neighbor in Nashville when he was governor of Tennessee), talked about the moment he realized that tour buses were slowing down by the governor's mansion to see Minnie Pearl's house, not his! Jeannie Seely proudly showed off a hat that was one of 100 hand-made for "Hats Off to Minnie," a TV tribute to the then-ailing star in 1992. Jeannie explained that although she had lost many of her possessions in the 2010 Nashville flood, she was relieved that the hat was among the few things she was able to retrieve. "I think there was a reason why I didn't lose this hat, so that's why I brought it here tonight," she said, to thunderous applause. (On a personal note, the hats for that TV special -- and the ones sold for several years at Minnie's gift shop -- were made by this writer's mother.)
In another of the evening's heartfelt moments, Brenda said of Sarah Cannon, "She was quoted as saying, 'cancer can change your life at the drop of a hat, and I know that because it's changed mine.' And never has this been more poignant to me than right now because my husband Ronnie has been fighting the cancer battle for three years now. So the work of the Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation is particularly important to us on this day."
Amy provided one of the evening's funniest moments, at her husband's expense, recalling that when she first told Minnie she was interested in Vince, she cautioned the singer, "Be aware of the fact that he does have a weight problem."
Amy closed the program by singing the heart-tugging "I Will Remember You." And whether through her life-changing philanthropy or her crowd-pleasing comedy, it's certain that Sarah Cannon, who died in 1996 at age 83, and Minnie Pearl, who will live forever (her Country Music Hall of Fame plaque, in fact, bears no death date), will be remembered and treasured for generations to come.