By Frank Overstreet
An all Gospel group from Valley Head, West Virginia
in the 1930s included the parents and their three daughters. One
of the daughters was named Wilma Lee Leary. The Leary Family recorded
for the Library Of Congress in 1938. When Wilma Lee's fiddle playing
uncle left "Smiley," but since "Smiley" Suffer,
a tri-state champion yodeler, was also a performer on radio station
WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia, a contest was held and "Stoney"
was chosen as the name of the new fiddle player. Dale T. "Stoney"
Cooper and Wilma Lee Leary were married in 1939. They were husband
and wife and musical partners until Stoney passed away on March
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. Before the first recordings of Wilma
Lee & Stoney were released, they had moved to WWVA, Wheeling, West
Virginia. Two songs from the Rich-R-Tone session, "This World
Can't Stand Long" and "Wicked Path Of Sin," were
included on the LP, The Rich-R-Tone Story, The Early Days
Of Bluegrass, Volume 5, (Rounder 1017) released in 1974. Those
songs are credited to Stoney Cooper and Wilma Lee in the liner notes,
but the Rich-R-Tone recordings were made with the band name, Stoney
Cooper's Blues Chasers. The cover of the book inside The Rich-R-Tone
Story, The Early Days Of Bluegrass, Volume 5, has a photo
of that group. Wilma Lee & Stoney's daughter, Carole Lee, looks
to be about three years old in that photo. She now leads "The
Carole Lee Singers," providing vocal background on the Grand
Ole Opry. She also occasionally serves as hostess of the Ernest
Tubb Midnight Jamboree. They band name was changed to "Wilma
Lee, Stoney Cooper and The Clinch Mountain Clan," when they
joined the Wheeling Jamboree on WWVA radio in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Wilma Lee & Stoney heard Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys Quartet sing
"The Wicked Path of Sin" on the radio. Wilma Lee wrote
down the words in shorthand. They believed Bill Monroe had already
recorded the song. Wilma Lee & Stoney's recording was released in
September 1948. Bill Monroe recorded the song on September 17, 1946,
but that recording was not released until October 1948.
They were one of the first bands to feature the
Dobro guitar, played by Bill Carver and later by "Buck"
Graves." He is better known today as "Uncle Josh,"
but Wilma Lee still calls him "Buck." Wilma Lee and Stoney
Cooper remained at WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia until they joined
the Grand Ole Opry on January 12, 1957, where Wilma Lee still performs
with the Clinch Mountain Clan. Recognized as a singer with great
vocal powers, Wilma Lee credits her early experiences where; "if
you were good you were also loud."
Art Satherly recruited Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper
for Columbia Records. Mr. Satherly referred to Wilma Lee and Stoney
as, "a true gentleman and lady." Columbia-Harmony albums
for Wilma Lee & Stoney were; HL 7233, Sacred Songs, released
in 1960 and HL 7378/HS 11178, Sunny Side Of The Mountain,
released in 1966. After a short stay with Columbia, Wilma Lee and
Stoney moved to Hickory Records. Hickory albums included The
Big Wheel, (HLPM H-100), released in 1960, Family Favorites
(LPM 106) released in 1962 and Songs Of Inspiration (LPM
112), released in 1963. Their next album was Decca DL 4784, Wilma
Lee & Stoney Cooper Sing, released in 1966. Walking My Lord
Up Calvary's Hill (Power Pak LP-PO 242) followed in 1974. Wilma
Lee & Stoney Cooper Sings The Carter Family's Greatest Hits
on Starday SLP 980, and their Self-Titled album on Rounder
0066 were released in 1976. An album titled, Early Recordings
was released on County Records CCS 103 in 1979, while Live Radio
1976 (Country Road 03) was released in Canada in 1982. Radio
Broadcasts 1957-58 (Radio Gems 3) was released in 1985.
The musical styling of Wilma Lee, Stoney Cooper
& The Clinch Mountain Clan was basically bluegrass, although they
did use an amplified lead guitar. Wilma Lee reorganized the Clinch
Mountain Clan two years after Stoney passed away with Gene Wooten,
Dobro, Gary Bailey, bass and Stan Brown, banjo. That group, with
Carole Lee singing harmony with her mother, recorded an album, titled,
A Daisy A Day (Leather LBG 7705) that was released in 1979.
That LP was reissued with same title on Rebel 1625. The Rounder
0143 album, released in 1981 was titled, Wilma Lee Cooper.
That LP had Stoney playing fiddle on six songs and singing lead
on "You Tried To Ruin My Name" and "Curly Headed
Baby." Rebel 1623, Wilma Lee Cooper, A White Rose, was
released in 1984. "There's A Big Wheel" "Big Midnight
Special," "A Daisy A Day," and many others have become
signature songs for Wilma Lee Cooper.
The International Bluegrass Music Association, (IBMA),
honored Wilma Lee Cooper 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. Wilma Lee was honored by the
Smithsonian Institution in 1974, and recorded for the Library of
Congress the same year. Harvard University chose Wilma Lee Cooper
as America's Most Authentic Mountain Singer in 1950. Wilma
Lee recorded with Hank Williams Sr. in 1951. Hank called Wilma Lee,
"his favorite female singer." Wilma Lee Cooper received
The Country Gospel Music Hall Of Fame Golden Harp Award in 1999
and the Golden Voice Award for Group Legacy in 1999 for 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.
Wilma Lee Cooper will be inducted into SPBGMA's
Preservation Hall Of Greats on Sunday, February 4, 2001.