October 2011

Stoney Cooper and wife Wilma Lee Cooper

‘If You Were Good, You Were Loud’

From the Appalachian Mountains to the Opry stage, Wilma Lee Cooper always went all out

February 7, 1921-September 13, 2011

Wilma Lee Cooper, who with her husband Stoney Cooper and their band the Clinch Mountain Clan, recorded some of the purest, most evocative and rhythmically furious mountain music of the 20th Century, passed away on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011 at her home in Sweetwater, TN, from natural causes. A member of the Opry since 1957, she was 90 years old.

Born into the musical Leary family, the former Wilma Lee Leary spent nearly her entire life singing and entertaining. Her career began at home, essentially, as a member of her Leary Family band, with which she gained almost immediate regional recognition for her impassioned rendering of gospel and devotional songs. The band, which included her parents and sisters, was recorded for the Library of Congress in 1938.  A year later Wilma Lee married fiddler/vocalist Dale T. "Stoney" Cooper, an accompanist for the Leary family, and the couple immediately formed their own Appalachian group. From 1947 to 1957 Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper were regulars on Wheeling. West Virginia's giant WWVA-AM's WWVA Jamboree before jumping to the Jamboree's rival show, the Grand Ole Opry.

The Stoney Cooper Blues Chasers, with Stoney, Wilma Lee Cooper and young Carole Lee Cooper as featured on the group’s first recordings, for the Rich-R-Tone label.

Jim Stanton of Rich-R-Tone Records contacted Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper while they were working on WWNC radio in Asheville, North Carolina. They recorded sixteen songs for Rich-R-Tone in one session in the middle 1940s, as Stoney Cooper's Blues Chasers. Before the first recordings were released, the Coopers had moved to WWVA. They band name was changed to "Wilma Lee, Stoney Cooper and The Clinch Mountain Clan" when they joined the Jamboree. Theirs was one of the first bands to feature the dobro, as played by Bill Carver and later by "Buck" Graves, aka the fabled "Uncle Josh," and they also distinguished their mountain music lineup by employing an amplified lead guitar. In addition, Wilma Lee was an accomplished guitarist, who would sometimes even spice a gospel song with blues licks when not strumming a sturdy rhythm part.

Recruited by Art Satherly for the Columbia label, Wilma Lee and Stoney released several albums on the Columbia/Harmony labels, including Sacred Songs (1960) and Sunny Side Of The Mountain (1966, after they had left the label). After a short stay with Columbia, the Coopers moved to Hickory Records, where their album releases included The Big Wheel (1960), Family Favorites (1962) and Songs Of Inspiration (1963). Moving to Decca they released Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper Sing in 1966, followed in 1974 by Walking My Lord Up Calvary's Hill. In 1976, two new albums emerged, Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper Sings The Carter Family's Greatest Hits on Starday and a self-titled album on Rounder. An album titled Early Recordings was released on County Records in 1979.

Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper on Porter Wagoner’s TV show, 1965, performing ‘Walking My Lord Up Calvary’s Hill

Two years after her husband's death, Wilma Lee reorganized the Clinch Mountain Clan with Gene Wooten on dobro, Gary Bailey on bass and Stan Brown on banjo. That group, with her and Stoney's only child, daughter Carole Lee, singing harmony with her mother, recorded A Daisy A Day for the Leather label in 1979, later reissued on Rebel. A 1981 Rounder album, Wilma Lee Cooper, features Stoney playing fiddle on six songs and singing lead on "You Tried To Ruin My Name" and "Curly Headed Baby." Wilma Lee Cooper, A White Rose, a 1984 Rebel release, features Wilma Lee revisiting some of her most popular songs, including "There's A Big Wheel" "Big Midnight Special" and "A Daisy A Day."

Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper perform their hit ‘Big Midnight Special’ on the Pet Milk Opry Show, 1963

In 1950 Harvard University honored Wilma Lee as “America's Most Authentic Mountain Singer,” and a year later she recorded with Hank Williams, who called her his favorite female singer. The International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) honored Wilma Lee with an Award Of Merit in 1994 for her contributions to bluegrass music. Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper's recording of "Big Midnight Special" was selected for continual play in the Artists' Gallery of The Hall Of Fame Museum at the Country Music Foundation in 1967. In 1999 Wilma received The Country Gospel Music Hall Of Fame Golden Harp and the Golden Voice Award for Group Legacy honoring her fifty years in country music Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper were installed in the George D. Hay Memorial Foundation Hall Of Fame in Mammoth Springs, Arkansas, in 1999. In 2001 she was inducted into SPBGMA's Preservation Hall Of Greats.

Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, ‘Doin’ My Time’

Known throughout her career for her powerful voice, Wilma Lee always had a quick answer as to how so diminutive a woman could muster so much volume. Easy, she said: when you grew up singing in places lacking any microphones, "if you were good you were also loud."

Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper's daughter, Carole Lee, born in 1942, leads the Carole Lee Singers, long one of Nashville's most popular vocal backing groups for studio and live performances, notably at the Grand Ole Opry where they have been mainstays for years. Carole Lee survives her parents, as do two granddaughters and four great-grandchildren.

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