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“Hello, friends!”

Al Purnell has been the spokesperson for Purnell’s Old Folks Country Sausage for more than 50 years. Photo: Wade Harris
When Purnell’s Old Folks Country Sausage needed a spokesman, Al Purnell thought, “I could do that.” Photo: Purnell family
Todd Purnell, left, succeeded his father, Al Purnell, right, as president of F.B. Purnell Sausage Company in 1999. Photo: Purnell family
Al and his wife, Ann, with nine of their 11 grandchildren. Photo: Purnell family

Purnell’s Old Folks Country Sausage: It’s gooo-od

AS AL PURNELL SWINGS OPEN the front door of his Shelby County farmhouse, it’s like he’s stepping out from one of his classic TV commercials.

Sporting a red plaid shirt and ballcap emblazoned with the logo of his family’s sausage company, Purnell’s open-mouthed smile lets out a “Hello, friends!” 

For more than 50 years, Purnell has been known as the sausage man from Simpsonville, his “Hello, friends” greeting on radio and TV advertisements paired with the trademark drawl, “It’s gooo-od.”

A trip to his office at the F.B. Purnell Sausage Company in Shelbyville shows the 86-year-old is more than just a pitchman.

“He’s been the spokesman, but he’s been the leader,” says his son, Todd Purnell, “And he’s been the driving force of this company.”

Though Todd succeeded Al as president of the sausage maker in 1999, both Al and older brother Bob continue to play active daily roles in the operation, alongside the third and fourth generations of Purnells.

The first generation was Al’s late parents, Fred B. “Old Folks” Purnell and his wife, Clara, who peddled homemade sausage out of the back of their car in Nashville. The side hustle became a full-time effort when disability forced Old Folks out of his railroad steam engine mechanic job in 1944. 

All four Purnell children got to work. Al was 8 when he began accompanying his father on sales calls.

“It would be my job to go get whatever they wanted,” Al recalls. “We would put the sausage in orange crates because that way it was good and solid.”

Outside a store in middle Tennessee, the youngster had a chance encounter with Grand Ol’ Opry star Uncle Dave Macon. 

“He said, ‘Boy, get me a pound of that sausage and if it’s any good I’ll talk about it on the Opry Saturday night,’” Al says. 

Despite the radio boost, the Purnells faced stiff competition from more established Tennessee brands. On the advice of a spice salesman, Old Folks moved the business to Louisville in 1950. The entire family pitched in, with Fred Jr. helping make the sausage, Bob performing maintenance, Betty keeping the books and young Al selling. 

In 1955, Old Folks constructed a new plant in Simpsonville as it gained customers with its “whole hog” family recipe with salts, sages and pepper. 

“It’s made with the ham, shoulders, loin and bacon,” Al explains, “the best parts of the whole hog. We use it all and try not to get it too fat or too lean. And that’s a big job.” 

In the early 1960s, Bob suggested advertising on University of Kentucky Basketball radio broadcasts. 

“My first thought was we couldn’t afford to,” Al admits. But once the decision was made, he didn’t see any reason to look outside the family for a spokesman. 

“I said, I could do that,” Al recalls. “Colonel Sanders was up the road there, so he set a great example that people want to hear from the people that’s making it.” 

Al became a familiar face when his television commercials started in the ’70s. 

“We all got to be in commercials,” smiles Al’s daughter Cindy Crockett. “I started participating when I was really little and loved that with our grandmother, and just loved to ham it up.” 

As the company expanded its reach, Al and his siblings took over more duties, carrying on their father’s legacy after his death in 1974, adding new equipment and employees, doubling the workforce to more than 100 in the 1970s, more than 200 in the ’90s, and more than 250 today. 

“Probably 50% of our employees have been here over 25 years,” says Brandon Smith, Al’s great-nephew. “Most of them have raised their grandchildren or kids all working here, and I think that’s a big part of the success.” 

In the long history of the company, it has never had a layoff. 

“There’s a lot of pride that goes with it,” says Al’s son, Ken Purnell. “And I think the way Daddy and Uncle Bob have always worked and worked with employees, they try to be very honorable in all of their dealings.” 

Old Folks has become a national brand. In the late ’70s, Al brokered deals with restaurant chains Hardee’s, Burger Queen and a new chain, Cracker Barrel, which had just 12 stores then. Today, there more than 600 Cracker Barrels—all serving Old Folks sausage. 

What’s the secret?

“Keep working and making good product,” Al says. “If we get a complaint, we try to find out why. And most complaints that we get, I think over 90% we make a plus out of it.”

“He is resilient,” says Allen Purnell Jr., reflecting on Al’s care for his wife of 63 years. Ann Purnell suffered a debilitating stroke in 1999.

“His dedication to her and to his faith, to his family has just been just wonderful to witness,” Crockett adds.

“I tell you, the good Lord has met with this company,” Al says, Ann’s hand in his. “Some way, somehow, people show up and she’s taken care of.”

“One of my dad’s favorite sayings is, ‘Can’t never did anything,’” adds Allen. 

“I did the best I could,” Purnell muses. “I really love what I do. It’s not hard.” 

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