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.

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