Wilma Lee Cooper: Guitarist, singer and banjo player known as 'The First Lady of Bluegrass'

 

Wilma Lee Cooper was an important link to the traditional sacred music of the Appalachians. Best known for her long-time partnership with her fiddle-playing husband, Stoney Cooper, she was a dynamic rhythm guitarist and banjo player and led her band, The Clinch Mountain Clan, for over half a century.

Her performances were noted for their integrity and for the raw powerof her voice; a trait she, herself, acknowledged: "I sing just like I did backwhen I was growing up in those West Virginia Mountains where, if youwere good, you were also loud! AndI've never changed; I couldn't sing any other way."

Born in Randolph County, West Virginia in 1921, she began her professional career as a member, alongside her parents and two sisters, of The Leary Family. A gospel-oriented group that had recorded several sides for the Library of Congress in 1938, the Learys had become radio stars at WSVA, Harrisonburg by the time they were joined, in 1939, by a young fiddler named Dale "Stoney" Cooper. Wilma and Stoney quickly became performing partners and eventually married.

They appeared on radio stations across the south and mid-west before winding up at WWNC, Asheville, North Carolina in 1947. While there, they recorded 16 tracks as Stoney Cooper's Blues Chasers for Jim Stanton's Rich-R-Tone Records. The numbers they cut, such as "This World Can't Stand Long" and "Wicked Path of Sin", would prove characteristic in terms of both theirreligious content and their bluegrass feel. The outfit was renamed WilmaLee and Stoney Cooper and the Clinch Mountain Clan when they relocatedto the famous WWVA WheelingJamboree, where they remained for the next decade.

In 1949, with the support of the noted Nashville songwriter and publisher Fred Rose, they began a brief association with Columbia, cutting a series of now highly regarded discs including "The White Rose" (1950) and Hank Williams' "Are You Walking and A-Talking for the Lord" (1953) before switching in 1955 to Hickory. They enjoyed a handful of hits with the label, including "Each Season Changes You" (1956), "Big Midnight Special" and "There's a Big Wheel" (both 1959), a cover of Stuart Hamblen's "This Ole House" (1960) and, in 1961, a fine version of Dorsey Dixon's "Wreck on the Highway".

Although their subsequent discs failed to chart, they did release a number of highly collectable albums for a variety of labels, including Songs of Inspiration (1963), Sunny Side of the Mountain (1966), Walking My Lord up Calvary's Hill (1974) and Satisfied (1976).

In 1957 they joined Nashville's Grand Ole Opry and found themselves amongst the standard-bearers for traditionalism at a time when many in country music were exploring new crossover sounds. Their dedication to their roots paid off during the folk revival as they became mainstays of the festival circuit – and in 1974 the Smithsonian named Wilma Lee "First Lady of Bluegrass".

Stoney Cooper's health began to fail in the early 1970s and in 1977 he died. Wilma Lee briefly retired from performing before deciding, in 1979, to assume sole leadership of their band. Having played rhythm guitar for much of her career, she began once again to play the five-string banjo and recorded some fine material for labels such as Rounder, Leather and Rebel.

She remained a much-loved member of the Opry family until she suffered a stroke while performing on its stage in 2001. In September 2010 she made a belated return to that stage as the show's cast celebrated the re-opening of the Opry House following the severe flood damage it had sustained earlier in the year. The Coopers' daughter, Carolee, has followed in the family tradition and leads the Opry's harmony vocal quartet, the Carol Lee Singers.

Wilma Leigh Leary (Wilma Lee Cooper), guitarist, singer and banjo player: born Valley Head, West Virginia 7 February 1921; married 1941 Dale Troy Cooper (died 1977; one daughter); died Sweetwater, Tennessee 13 September 2011.

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
News
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Sport
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
peopleCareer spanned 70 years, including work with Holocaust survivors
News
people
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Nurse

£40 per day: Randstad Education Manchester: Nursery Nurse needed in salfordI a...

Nursery Nurse

£25 per day: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery nurse needed in th...

Supply Teaching jobs in Thetford

£21588 - £31566 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

KS1 teachers needed in Peterborough

£110 - £125 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education are ur...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape