It was a star studded crowd this past Monday at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry House, as the The Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation held a very special fundraiser titled Center Stage At The Opry.
Held to coincide with the 100th anniversary of her birth in Centerville, TN, the evening brought together many who knew and loved the legendary comedienne. One such person was Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, who lived next door to her when he was the state's chief executive from 1979-1987.
"They were good," Alexander told Billboard in recalling his years as the Country Music Hall of Fame member's neighbor. "Living next door to Minnie Pearl was reason enough to run for Governor," he said with a smile.
"She was just plain nice and was always considerate. She set a standard around in here because she would always sign the last autograph, and was courteous to the newcomer at the Opry or the young person who came here as a writer. She made it clear that if a hot shot singer moved to town and wasn't nice to people, that wasn't alright with her. I think by her example, she created a culture that still lasts in Nashville today with the fans knowing that if they come here, the stars will be down to earth."
One such artist who definitely learned from her was Vince Gill, who remarked about the similarities - as well as the differences between Minnie Pearl and Sarah Cannon, her real persona, who was one of Nashville's biggest philanthropists.
"I would venture to say that even though they were the same woman, they really weren't. There was an elegance about Sarah Cannon, not that there wasn't with Minnie Pearl, but their personalities were somewhat different in that one was someone she was just portraying, but it was also very much who she was."
Gill also reflected upon the close friendship between her and the Opry's leader, Roy Acuff. "There was no better friendship in the history of the Opry than theirs. The love and respect they had for each other was what gave this place its' greatest foundation. When you think about the Opry and the history, those are the people that come to mind first."
Though Minnie Pearl passed away in March of 1996, Gill said that presence is still very much felt today. "I think that's a tribute to what she was when she was here. It's like great music. It almost in a sense doesn't need one in the flesh. That spirit and kindness of someone like her is why. She's never out of your thoughts. You walk these halls, and you know what a pivotal role she played in the way she treated everyone out here."
Singer Amy Grant, also Gill's wife, who helped organize the event, talked about the close relationship the two had. She recalled a visit with her in 1992 in which she asked her blessing to name one of her daughters after her. "I remember her talking about her childhood, and how important poetry was, the arts, beauty, clouds and silver linings," Grant remarked. "It was such a wonderful conversation."
That tie continues today, Grant said. "Corinna, our youngest daughter, had to be someone famous from Tennessee in fourth grade, and with no prodding, she wanted to be Minnie Pearl. What a great legacy," Grant remarked.
For more information regarding the Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation, log on to www.MinniePearl.org.