Remembering Wilma Lee Cooper

“You can’t talk about women in country music, vocal styles, rhythm guitar styles . . . without also talking about Wilma Lee Cooper.”

– Alice Gerrard in SING OUT! Aug 24, 1977

For more than 30 years, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper were among our nation’s premier country and bluegrass acts. Wilma Lee and Stoney traveled the heartworn highway from rural West Virginia to stardom, singing their songs and fronting the acclaimed Clinch Mountain Clan. Following Stoney’s death in 1977, Wilma Lee continued to perform and record until a stroke ended her career in 2001.

Among the most admired artists in early country and bluegrass music, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper were luminous as stars on Wheeling, West Virginia’s WWVA Jamboree, and Nashville, Tennessee’s Grand Ole Opry. Wilma Lee’s vigorous embrace of the Monroe-Stanley-Martin tradition prompted requests for her to record for the Library of Congress and Smithsonian Institution, which christened her “First Lady of Bluegrass” in 1974. IBMA honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994.

The Coopers recorded for several labels, Rich-R-Tone and Columbia, among them, yielding a legacy of recorded classics that include “Walking My Lord Up Calvary Hill,” “There’s a Big Wheel,” “The Legend of the Dogwood Tree,” and “A Daisy a Day.” 

Wilma Lee (Leigh) Leary was born in 1921 in rugged Randolph County, West Virginia. Her father was a coal miner and farmer, and her mother, a school teacher. At a time when it was rare for women from rural communities to attend college, Wilma Lee, her mother and sisters, Jerry and Peggy, were college-educated. Wilma Lee’s business administration degree from Davis and Elkins College would help later in her career, when she assumed the mantle of bandleader, another rarity for women in country and bluegrass music at the time.

Wilma Lee began her career as a child, singing with her parents and sisters in the Leary Family Singers. The family sang gospel music at churches and schoolhouses. In 1938, they won a state-wide talent contest. As a result, the family was invited by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to represent West Virginia at that year’s National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C. The family hired Stoney Cooper, also a Randolph County resident, as their fiddle player. Wilma Lee and Stoney married in 1941.

In a 1974 interview, Wilma Lee told IBMA Lifetime Achievement honoree, Alice Gerrard, that singing without microphones in venues with no electricity forced the group to “sing loud where people could hear you.” Thus, Wilma Lee’s singing style of high energy, emotive, precise elocution was born. 

Early in their career, Wilma Lee and Stoney made the usual rounds of radio stations, performing in small markets from Nebraska to North Carolina. But it was their decades-long tenure on the WWVA Jamboree (1947-1957) and the Grand Ole Opry (1957-1977) that enhanced their fame. Carol Lee, the Coopers’ only child, often joined her parents on stage and would eventually establish the Carol Lee Singers, a vocal quartet that backed Opry stars from 1973 until her retirement in 2012.

The band’s trademark sound featured Dobro, mandolin, and banjo backing Stoney’s old-time/bluegrass fiddle and Wilma Lee’s propulsive rhythm guitar and soul-stirring vocals. Wilma Lee preferred, and excelled at performing, story songs. She and Stoney fashioned a diverse repertoire that featured Scriptural gospel (“Thirty Pieces of Silver”), Heart-tugging laments (“I Dreamed About Mama Last Night”), spiritual alerts (“Wreck on the Highway”), historical ballads (“Rachel’s Guitar”), a cheater’s reproach (“You Tried to Ruin My Name”), and hard-charging bluegrass (“Sunny Side of the Mountain”).

Wilma Lee delivered her songs with integrity, fervor, and joy. On up-tempo songs, such as “Big Wheel,” her right hand pumped vigorously as a perfectly synchronized metronome; on stage, she enlivened her songs with a buoyant bounce, her colorful crinoline-braced dresses a part of the act. The emotional delivery with which she shared her songs was without artifice or guile. For Shakespeare, the play was the thing. For Wilma Lee, it was the show.

Music historians Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann include Wilma Lee among the female singers who “took Appalachian vocal fervor 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.”

The band scored hits in 1957, including the top-5 single, “Cheated Too.” The song opened the door to the Grand Ole Opry, where they remained for some 20 years. Following Stoney’s death in 1977, Wilma Lee reformed the Clinch Mountain Clan and continued to perform as a solo act. By 1980, as bluegrass festivals were gaining popularity, Wilma Lee shifted her focus from old-time country and gospel to a more bluegrass-centric style, earning the title, “First Lady of Bluegrass.”

In 2001, Wilma Lee suffered a stroke while performing on stage at the Opry. The First Lady of Bluegrass took her final Opry bow in 2010, thanking her fans and the Opry staff for their support. 

Wilma Lee’s death on September 13, 2011, marked the passing of a musician who began her career in oil lamp-lit schoolhouses and ended in nationally televised performances on the Grand Ole Opry. Whether with Stoney or on her own, she helped pave the way for other country and bluegrass women with her artistry, professionalism, and devotion to her fans. Wilma Lee Cooper was one of a kind, a genteel mountain woman the likes of which we will never see again.

Notes from Friends

Marking the tenth anniversary of her passing, Wilma Lee’s friends and bandmates reflect on the music, personality, and professionalism that defined her stellar career:

Stan “Stanjo” Brown: From 1977 to 1982, Brown was banjoist with the Clinch Mountain Clan. His bandmates included Gene Wooten (Dobro), Terry Smith (bass), Woody Paul Chrisman and later, Tater Tate, (fiddle). Brown remembers Wilma Lee fondly as hard-working, dynamic, and unwaveringly loyal to her band and her fans.

Stoney and Wilma Lee Cooper
Stoney and Wilma Lee Cooper

“Wilma Lee was a powerhouse. The music was so together, it was unbelievable. Before Stoney died, the music had a country feel to it. It was more laid back. After he died, it had more energy. It was more up tempo, had more drive, but her guitar did that. She had a drive and energy level on guitar that you can compare to all the classic ones, including Jimmy Martin and Charlie Waller.

“When she was playing and singing, you knew where the beat was at all times. She sang with emotion. She would sing “A Daisy a Day.” She would be sobbing when she was done. Tears would run down her face. There was nothing fake about it. She had that much emotion and when she was done playing a show, she . . . would be soaking wet. She’d have to sit down, drink water and cool off. Every show she ever did she put every ounce of her energy into it.

“And she was really good with people, off and on stage. She could communicate and have people  in the palm of her hand. 

“She would talk to us about music, about different artists. About the music we were playing at the time, and stage presence—she wanted the whole ‘look.’ She bought our clothes—the suits. We’d eat dinner together, but she never talked about things in the past. When she went out on her own . . .she played more than she ever played in her life. She was really busy. 

“The first year, if I recall right, we worked about 120 dates and logged about 110,000 miles. It was intense, but fun. She always put us up in really nice hotel rooms. Even if we didn’t have an overstay, she would rent a room for us to shower or clean up.

“One of the last shows I played with her was Orlando, FL, on a Thursday night. We had a show opening for Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in Wisconsin on Saturday, driving 1,890 miles. Then we left for Pennsylvania for a gospel show. On to WWVA on Monday, Knoxville, TN, on Tuesday, and back to Nashville on Wednesday. We traveled 3,700 miles and did seven shows.”

Paul “Woody Paul” Chrisman:  Chrisman played fiddle for Wilma Lee before leaving to help establish the cowboy trio, Riders in the Sky, in 1978. 

“When Stoney died, Wilma Lee needed a fiddle player and Howdy Forrester, who was my hero, got me the job. I had come off the road from a big tour with Loggins and Messina on the West Coast. I grew up back stage at the Opry and I knew everybody. 

Wilma Lee Cooper and the Clinch Mountain Clan (Left to Right): Marty Lanham, Wilma Lee Cooper, Terry Smith, and Gene Wooten.  Fall 1981.
Wilma Lee Cooper and the Clinch Mountain Clan (Left to Right): Marty Lanham, Wilma Lee Cooper, Terry Smith, and Gene Wooten. Fall 1981.

“As an artist, I loved Wilma Lee to death. She was just so talented. She had such a groove playing the guitar and singing. It was powerful and it was strong, and she was always so good with an audience. She was brought up to believe we’re all cut from the same mold. 

“Her right hand was so strong. Her precise rhythm was phenomenal. As were her stamina, her energy, and her automatic appeal to her audience. She just took the stage. It wasn’t an act. She was no different on stage or off.

“Wilma Lee was super professional. [As a boss] she was always friendly and patient. She wanted things to be right, and was always able to get what she wanted from the band.”

Terry Smith: Smith joined Wilma Lee in 1979, replacing Gary Bailey on bass. Smith left in 1984, and joined her band again from 1987 to 1989. Son of the late music journalist, Hazel Smith, and brother of musician Billy, Terry came of age with the country and bluegrass music he contributed as an integral member of the Clinch Mountain Clan.

“Wilma Lee was a country girl. She never lost that Appalachian side of her. She read all the time. She was into American clairvoyant Edgar Cayce. She was a pastor. She took college courses for that and became a reverend.

“She was an absolute comet, a ball of fire. On stage she was a powerhouse. She would tell us about different situations, what it was like for women to travel. It wasn’t really geared for women during that period. She knew she was a go-getter. She would say Stoney died and she went out and did it. She was proud of it, as she should be. I’d hear her some nights on the CB radio, talking to truck drivers. She’d never tell who she was, but she’d say, ‘I’m the leader of a band. I’ve got four men under me who work for me.’

“She was from that old school, singing great, playing great and having a really good band. She was from that school of entertaining. The Opry, to me, used to be like hillbilly vaudeville. She was from that era. When asked to put on a show, she didn’t necessarily try to impress somebody. The show was the most important thing. If I did learn something from her, it was that you’re not there to dazzle anybody, you’re there to entertain them. 

“‘A Daisy a Day’ was probably her favorite song. She never told me it was, but we would always do it and she would always talk about the song. It was requested quite a bit, along with ‘Walking My Lord Up Calvary Hill.’

“She knew she owed everything to her fans, she knew that was her bread and butter. She would never tolerate her band members being rude to her fans. You could be sure that she expected us to show the utmost respect to the fans, because they were the reason we were there. She really felt that way.

“She got along with everybody at the Opry. We were in the bluegrass world some, but we were in Dressing Room 3 most of the time with Little Jimmy Dickens, the Crook Brothers, and Kirk McGee. She got along well. She was one of those dependable, legendary acts on the Opry. It was quite an experience.”

Alice Gerrard: Gerrard and her musical partner, the late Hazel Dickens, are enshrined in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. As female bandleaders in the 1960s and ‘70s, Alice and Hazel inspired future generations of women to join the ranks of bluegrass performers as Wilma Lee was role model for the women who followed her lead. In 1977, Gerard’s interview with Wilma Lee Cooper appeared in the folk journal, Sing Out! The following comments issue from Sing Out! and an interview with the author.

“The first bluegrass band I ever heard on tape was Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper and the Clinch Mountain Clan. The song was “West Virginia Polka,” and the energy in Wilma Lee’s clean, strong, driving voice and guitar was a powerful first impression that has stayed with me. 

“I saw Wilma Lee and Stoney many times at New River Ranch and Sunset Park back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Wilma Lee and Stoney were able to project a warmth and respect to an audience as well as among themselves without being gross or patronizing. And it was exciting to me as a novice musician to see another woman in a strong role as a musician and band member.  During the 1950s and ‘60s there were virtually no women playing or singing bluegrass music professionally even at a time when bluegrass music was beginning to gain a much larger and more varied audience.” 

“I loved Wilma Lee–her guitar playing and singing. I liked her really powerful voice. She and Molly O’Day sang with that same kind of pull-out voice. They didn’t hold back, it wasn’t a feminine, soft, sweet and high voice. It was powerful. I was very impressed by that. That’s what I wanted to sound like.”    

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