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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
The two faces revealed by the ultraviolet light
newsScholars left shaken after shining ultraviolet light on 500-year-old Welsh manuscript
News
Rosamund Pike played Bond girld Miranda Frost, who died in Die Another Day (PA)
news
Arts and Entertainment
books
News
newsHow do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? With people like this
Voices
Björt Ólafsdóttir is a member of Iceland's Bright Future party
voicesIceland's Björt Ólafsdóttir on her decision to take part in #FreeTheNipple
Life and Style
The Clove Club will charge customers when they book
food + drink
News
Lapping it up: a woman feeds felines at a cat café in Japan
newsThe vast majority of cat and dog 'wet foods' contain items not specified on the tin, study finds
Sport
Andros Townsend and Paul Merson
football
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat