Tales of Bessman: Minnie Pearl, Dick Nixon and the Grand Ole Opry House

After finding out Friday that the Grand Ole Opry House has joined the Ryman Auditorium in the National Register, I hastily knocked off a little piece for examiner.com reporting the facts, ma’am, just the facts. Among them was that then President Richard Nixon attended the grand opening of the Grand Ole Opry House on March 16, 1974.

I left out that it was nearing the end of Nixon’s presidency, as he would resign on August 9. In his hopelessly awkward, embarrassing and clearly guilt-ridden way, he was blatantly seeking what was likely his last refuge: at best a conservative audience that was still in his corner, at worst a bunch of hillbillies who probably saw him as too liberal. Who else but Roy Acuff introduced him, and he played piano and sang, and Tricky Dick notwithstanding, clumsily clowned with Roy’s yo-yo.

I made my first trip to Nashville two years later, and by the time President George H.W. Bush became the next sitting president to visit the Opry House—for the 1991 CMA Awards show—I was an Opry regular. In fact, I was either four rows in back and two seats to the left of President and Barbara Bush, or six rows back, two seats left. I can’t remember exactly because I was so stoned when I got there, as was my tradition at all black-tie events Nashville. Probably four rows, because I used to sick-joke that two rows closer and I’d have been within strangling distance.

It was at the height of my career then, and the CMA and Opry took care of me good. I do remember that everyone attending the show had submitted their Social Security numbers well in advance, for vetting by the Secret Service. Still, there were no metal detectors, and I didn’t feel like I was being surveilled at all, especially after it dawned on me that by constantly bending over and setting my notebook, pen, or program on the floor and picking them up again, it might well have looked like I was, say, assembling some kind of makeshift weapon.

I ran this thought past my pal Bill Carter, the next day, the Bill Carter who was the ex-Kennedy Secret Service agent who had taken Marina Oswald into protective custody immediately after the assassination, and who is on the first line of Page 2 of Keith Richards’ memoir for fixing his and the other Stones’ legal troubles from the 1970s on.

“Oh, they were watching you from the moment you walked in!” Bill reassured me.

I couldn’t find a video of Nixon at the Opry House to post with my examiner.com piece, so I settled on Minnie Pearl’s performance from that night. Here it is again:

“Come to see us at our new house!” Minnie implored. “We’ll treat you so many different ways, you’re bound to like one of them!”

She looks so adorable, doesn’t she? Beautiful in fact. She’d have been 61 then—a year younger than I am now. The hillbilliest person you can imagine, but you know it was total shtick: Born in the small mid-Tennessee town of Centerville, she was the youngest of five daughters of a prosperous lumberman, and graduated from what is now Belmont University in Nashville, then its most prestigious school for young ladies. She majored in theater studies, and taught dance for several years after graduation.

She went on to join a touring theater company out of Atlanta, producing and directing plays and musicals while creating her Minnie Pearl character, which she introduced in 1939, then brought to the Opry the following year. And while she played a hillbilly to the hilt, she stood up for the induction of harmonica legend DeFord Bailey—the Opry’s first African-American performer—into the Country Music Hall of Fame, which finally happened posthumously in 2005.

Minnie was also adored by the likes of Dean Martin and Paul Reubens, who brought his Pee Wee Herman character to a Minnie Pearl tribute show in 1992—a year after she suffered a stroke. I had seen her regularly at the Opry up until then, and always worshipfully said hi.

An Opry regular myself, I was particularly close to Grandpa Jones, Jimmy C. Newman, Skeeter Davis and Porter Wagoner—now also all gone—and Bill Anderson and Riders in the Sky–among the still living.

One time, not long before her stroke in June, 1991, Minnie appeared at the Jim Halsey Company’s annual hang at his Music Row office the afternoon of the CMA Awards. Agent/manager Jim Halsey had worked with everyone from Minnie to Roy Clark, Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Hank Thompson, James Brown and the Oak Ridge Boys, and still works with the Oaks.

Jim’s son Sherman was a pal, and a talented and successful music video director and a wonderful guy. Sadly, he died, too, a year and a-half ago. When I got to Jim’s office that afternoon, I immediately hooked up with Sherman, and we both made a beeline to Minnie, who was leaving with her husband Henry Cannon. Sherman would have known Minnie all his life, but he was no less enthralled in her presence as I was. We just stood there, hanging on her every word, beaming ecstatically.

“Did you boys smoke pot?” she finally asked.

“No, Minnie,” I said, “but you can be sure we will before the show!”

Minnie was bedridden following her stroke. At first she was tended to at home. For some reason, I felt compelled to see if I could visit her, and for some reason, they let me. I went out to the house—a large estate home next to the Tennessee Governor’s mansion–but I don’t remember much about the visit.

Soon after, she was moved to a nursing home. My understanding was that Henry was very stern about who could visit her, and that I most certainly didn’t qualify. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

I’d become friendly with Minnie’s assistant, and it was through her that I managed to sneak in to see her every time I was in town, which at that time was three times a year. It was all done very secretly: She’d let me know when was a good time to go, usually mid- to late afternoon, when no one else was there. And sure enough, I’d get there and Minnie would be alone. The nursing staff expected me, and maybe Minnie did, too.

I say maybe, because Minnie was a stroke victim: She was partly paralyzed, and I was never really sure how great her grasp was on reality. I mean, we’d talk about what she’d been doing, and she’d say something like how much Garth Brooks loved her and had been in to see her the day before, which most certainly could have been true—he did in fact name his first daughter Taylor Mayne Pearl Brooks—and that the day before that she’d been in New York, which most certainly wasn’t. And that’s how it was with her: She talked nonstop, going back and forth from presumed reality to assured fantasy, and I had to hold on for dear life not only to keep up but to keep her going.

One time—I think it was the last time–she was in the day room when I got there. She was having a bad day. We started talking and she started crying, and the nurses looked on, like maybe I should leave.

“Oh, he don’t give a shit!” she said, and I had to bite my tongue not to bust up laughing—out of respect, of course, and undying love. They then gave me the ultimate honor of pushing her bed, wheels unlocked, through the hall and back to her room.

It was dark when I left, and as I walked to my rental car, I faced the ultimate horror: Henry!

Henry Cannon was really the perfect Southern Gentleman. Serious and polite, he ran an air charter service for country stars including Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. I’d met him a few times but never really knew him. But I knew he knew me.

I was leaving, he was coming. We met in the parking lot halfway to my car.

“I want to thank you for always remembering Minnie and coming to see her,” Henry said softly. “I know it means a lot to her.”

I was so dumbfounded I don’t remember what I said, or that I said anything.

Minnie died on March 4, 1996, from complications from another stroke. She was 83.

Nixon was 81 when he died almost two years before Minnie. That they were both at the grand opening of the Grand Ole Opry House on March 16, 1974 was probably all they had in common.

2 thoughts on “Tales of Bessman: Minnie Pearl, Dick Nixon and the Grand Ole Opry House

  • March 2, 2015 at 1:54 pm
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    Fascinating, Jim. Since I grew up in Middle Tennessee, we’ll have to talk about the Nashville scene one of these days. It’s a small world. My wife Cathy once worked in an office with Porter Wagoner’s daughter Denise. Cheers, Charles

  • March 2, 2015 at 4:57 pm
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    I knew Porter’s daughter! Thanks for commenting, as always!

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