In the more than 40 years that Sarah Cannon has been "doing" Minnie Pearl, several generations of "legitimate" actors and seven presidents have come and gone. You just can't spend that much time with anyone, even your own creation, and not have her rub off on you.

"She's almost me now," says Cannon. Although for many years Cannon couldn't "do" Minnie in street clothes, "this morning I told a Minnie Pearl joke, and I don't think anybody cared if I was dressed up or not."

Minnie Pearl, a spinster of unmentionable years, has reluctantly come of age. The "queen of country comedy" and longtime godmother of the Grand Ole Opry has become America's archetype of good-hearted, man-crazy, little-town womanhood. Her two-octave "How-deeeeee!" and the price tag dangling from her huge flowered hats are instantly recognized by millions of Opry and "Hee-Haw" fans all over the world.

Her third annual CBS Christmas special airs tonight at 10 p.m., making her the Bing Crosby of country video. Her first national commercial, for Spic 'n' Span cleaner, is on the air. And she is chugging through a five-week tour promoting the newly published "Minnie Pearl: An Autobiography" from "Good Morning America" to "Tonight."

This is celebrity, all right. It's almost impossible to remain unaltered, even in Grinder's Switch, where Minnie lives. ("I won't say it's small, but when Uncle Nabob saw the first train come through Grinder's Switch, he said, 'If that thing ever comes through here sideways, it'ud wipe us off the map!'")

"She's not as naive as she once was," says her creator. "I'm sorry: I'd like to keep her just the way she was, but it's almost impossible in this day and age.

"For a long time I kept her in the dark about certain things . . . like air-conditioned cars and escalators. Now she tells jokes about them. But she's never changed fundamentally. "I wish," says Sarah Cannon, 67, "I could say the same thing about myself."

The two of them -- Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, Tennessee gentlewoman and finishing school graduate; and fond and foolish Minnie Pearl -- sum up exactly the rags-and-rhinestone dichotomy which exists in Nashville and in country music in general. While Minnie is holding on to Grinder's Switch, Sarah and Henry Cannon live next door to and play tennis with the governor of Tennessee.

But that ambiguity can be a refuge: "I feel sorry for people who don't have that skin to crawl into. I can get away from a lot by crawling into her skin."

"Minnie's never lost a relative," says Henry Cannon, who used to pilot his wife around the country and now keeps her company in the limo.

"That's right!" says Sarah Cannon, lighting up. "Isn't it a wonderful thing to think that she'll never have a tear on her face . . . never have a disappointment. And never see one of her loved ones age."

The autobiography, written with Joan Dew, who also aided Tammy Wynette on her story, took three years to complete. "I learned a lot about Minnie, but more about myself," says Cannon. The book, like Loretta Lynn's is an uncommonly straightforward memoir which has already gone into a second printing.

Twenty-seven years of one-night Opry stands left their mark on Sarah Cannon and her philosophy, but she wears it well.

"I have achieved a plateau in my old age when I rely on the old saying, 'This too will pass.' It's the only thing that sees you through this life.

"When you're a teen-ager and something bad happens, you sink into the depths of despair and think you'll never recover. When you get older, you realize that something worse is always going to happen and you just have to get on and get over it!

"I can't overemphasize how important a sense of humor is in keeping your perspective. That's one thing about Minnie that's made her so wonderful to live with. She never gets all up in a snit about anything."

Minnie Pearl gets dozens of fan letters a week, and answers them all. "You wouldn't think people could be so unhappy they'd unburden themselves to someone they don't even know, but they do," says Cannon. "These days, the pace of life is so frenetic, people are more attuned to crying than laughing.Making people laugh is hard.

"That's why Minnie's lasted so long, I think. When people come to a show to see Minnie, they know that for a period of 20 to 30 minutes they won't have to think. They're going to be transported to a place called Grinder's Switch -- and it's a great, happy place."