Remembering Wilma Lee Cooper

Wilma Lee Cooper, the veteran bluegrass-based country music singer, died of natural causes on September 13 at her home in Sweetwater, Tennessee. She was 90 years old and had spent nearly her entire life singing and entertaining.

Born Wilma Lee Leary on February 7, 1921, in Valley Head, Randolph County, West Virginia, she joined the Leary Family Gospel Band as a teenager, singing in local churches and at festivals. Recordings that the band made in 1938 can be found in the Library of Congress.

She married fiddle player Dale T. “Stoney” Cooper in the following year and the duo, whose daughter is Carol Lee, the leader of the Carol Lee Singers, formed the group Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper and the ClinchMountain Clan.

After a break from performing after the birth of their daughter, the Coopers returned to the road as a duo and sang on radio shows in Arkansas, Nebraska (KMMJ), Illinois (WJJD, Chicago) and North Carolina (WWNC).

In 1947 they began their decade-long residency on radio station WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia. That same year they made a few records for Rich-R-Tone, which they sold by mail through their Asheville radio show.

Then in 1948 they signed with Columbia Records and their recordings of Sunny Side of the Mountain and The White Rose helped them to gain a bigger audience. Other popular Columbia releases were the sacred songs like Thirty Pieces Of Silver and Legend Of The Dogwood Tree.

Playing guitar and banjo in a very energetic style, Ms Cooper, her husband and the Clinch Mountain Clan joined the Grand Ole Opry cast in 1957. According to Robert K. Oermann and Mary A. Bufwack in  Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, she “took Appalachian vocal fervour and threw it into overdrive, creating a spine-tingling new female country sound, a throbbing, sobbing, thrilling, chilling delivery that would influence stylists for years to come.” She described herself as “a country singer with the mountain whang to it.”

Their recordings Come Walk With Me (1958, #4), Big Midnight Special (1959, #4), There’s a Big Wheel (1959, #3) and Wreck on the Highway (1961, #8) for the Hickory label were the cream of the crop in a five-year spell that saw them make 27 hit records.

They recorded popular gospels songs like Tramp on the Street and Walking My Lord Up Calvary’s Hill as well.

That said, some of their recordings would not have appealed to bluegrass music purists as Chet Atkins played electric guitar on many of the Hickory sides and the later Decca sides were even more mainstream country in style.

Just prior to Stoney Cooper’s death in March 1977 they recorded an eponymous album for Rounder Records (0066, 1976).

Wilma Lee Cooper carried on as a solo artist with a new version of the Clinch Mountain Clan, including Gene Wooten, ‘Tater’ Tate, Marty Lanham and Terry Smith to back her and became a favorite on the bluegrass and folk festival circuits. She was also a perennial favourite on the Grand Ole Opry and recorded albums for Leather, Rounder and Rebel Records.

In 1950 Harvard University chose her as America’s Most Authentic Mountain Singer and in 1974 the Smithsonian Institution honoured her as “the first lady of bluegrass.”

The bluegrass music community also recognised Ms Cooper’s work; in 1994 the IBMA honoured her with an Award Of Merit and in 2001 she was inducted into SPBGMA’s Preservation Hall Of Greats.

Her career was prematurely ended in 2001 when she had a stroke while on stage during a Grand Ole Opry performance.

Despite the fact that her doctors said that she would never be able to walk again, in September 2010 Wilma Lee Cooper returned to the Opry stage to thank her fans for her long career and to re-open the Opry House after the Nashville floods of May that year.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.