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Issue 21/22, Summer 1998

The Archangel

I had a moment with her in the ladies’ room backstage at the Grand Ole Opry sometime in the early ’80s. We were taping one of that decade’s ubiquitous country music television “specials.” I was on quite a lot of them, and Minnie always seemed to be there, whether she performed or not. This particular night was the only time I was ever alone with her. While we washed our hands we chatted, and I said something about childbirth. I can’t remember what exactly—perhaps a complaint about the toll taken on my figure. And Minnie, of the perpetually loud, happy voice and unshakable, shining countenance, dropped her volume about twenty decibels to say, behind the smile that never seemed to fall, “I never got to do that.” I was taken aback, and confused, and very moved. Minnie was childless? She was so full of love, and so mothering, that it seemed impossible.

I came to realize, corny as it may sound (but she was the one who invented corn, wasn’t she?), that we were all her children. The endless parade of stars and hopefuls and has-beens, the massive insecurities and egos simmering under outsized hats, and those of us who were young and unfathomably ignorant of the traditions we heaped derision on, all who nervously milled about in those labyrinthine halls and boxy dressing rooms backstage at the Opry (the new one, I mean; I had the privilege of prowling the dark confines of the original Opry only once—the night it closed), we all belonged to her. She called us “precious, “darlin’,” “angel,” and “the prettiest thing I ever saw,” sometimes all in one sentence. She didn’t care what kind of mess you were, or what people were saying about you, or where your record was on the charts—she just saw another yearning soul standing there asking for love, whether you knew you were asking for it or not, and, by God, she was going to see that you got it. It makes me want to weep just to think about it, and, really, I barely knew her.

The character she created, her plain humor, that ringing, joyful greeting— “I’m just so proud to be here!”—was wonderful and funny and captured a time and culture that is all but gone. I’m sure I didn’t appreciate them enough; but it’s that precious darlin’ archangel Sarah Cannon, the luminous human being who infused the character Minnie Pearl, who commanded my attention. She had a generosity of spirit that I aspire to.

She’s gone, and that period of my life is gone. The last time I wandered the halls backstage at the Opry was about the time she died. I was a guest on a lavish benefit show that had a lot of big names on it, and I hadn’t been to Nashville in a long while. Most of the faces in the corridors had changed, but the rampant insecurities, the pathological need for attention, and the phony largesse of spirit had not. The only difference was that the Guardian Mother wasn’t there to infuse all the little dramas with her humor and compassion. It all just seemed like business, and fairly appalling business at that.

I’m sad she’s gone, but hell, the world and the music business were getting far too prickly for the likes of Sarah Cannon. Had I stayed in her sweet orbit, I would have wanted to shield her from it all, to preserve her faith in us, to enshrine her, to stand in her light, and have her all to myself. I would have begged a little: “Give me some of what you’ve got, Minnie. I really, really need it. All that love and sweetness and those baby endearments might just save me. I could not be the accuser, or the condemned, in the face of all that, so just shine it on me, Minnie.”

Godspeed, Sarah. I’m just so proud you could be here. 

Rosanne Cash

Rosanne Cash is a Grammy-winning singer and songwriter, as well as the author of four books, including her best-selling memoir, Composed. She is the recipient of the 2021 Edward MacDowell Medal.