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Who Wilma Lee Cooper
What Wilma Lee Cooper: Longtime 'Opry' star was link to country's past
When September 13, 2011
Where Sweetwater, TN

Wilma Lee Cooper, a Grand Ole Opry member for 54 years and a vital link to country music’s tradition-drenched past, died Tuesday of natural causes at her home in Sweetwater, Tenn.

Mrs. Cooper, whose powerful, unadorned vocal style made her a favorite singer of Country Music Hall of Famers Hank Williams, Emmylou Harris and Conway Twitty, was 90. She starred for decades in husband/wife duo Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper and carried on as a solo artist after Stoney’s death in March of 1977.

Though she was sometimes referred to as “The First Lady of Bluegrass Music,” Mrs. Cooper preferred nodding to her West Virginia heritage by calling her sound, “mountain music with a beat.”

“Honesty and sincerity was what came through when she sang,” said Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs, who will honor Mrs. Cooper with a two-hour tribute on WSM-AM 650 Monday from 8 to 10 p.m. “It was undeniable.”

Born Wilma Leigh Leary in Valley Head, W.Va., she began singing with family group The Leary Family in the 1930s, and that group recorded for the Library of Congress in 1938.

She married Dale T. “Stoney” Cooper in 1939, and began working at various radio stations. Wilma Lee & Stoney were recording artists by the mid-1940s, and they became one of the most popular acts on WWVA radio in Wheeling, W.Va., where they starred on the Wheeling Jamboree for a decade before moving to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in 1957. Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper were inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

Called “my favorite female singer” by Williams, Mrs. Cooper was a fine banjo player and rhythm guitarist, and she wrote songs for the duo (one of which was recorded by Williams in one of his “Luke The Drifter” recitations). Her affable stage manner contributed to her success in an era when live radio performances, not recordings, were keys to making a living in music.

“Listeners could tell she was honest, and they felt that she was someone they’d like to have in their own living rooms,” Stubbs said.

Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper’s Top 10 country hits included “Come Walk With Me,” “There’s a Big Wheel” and “Big Midnight Special.” Poor health forced Stoney to retire in the mid-1970s, and Mrs. Cooper decided to remain on the Opry as a solo act after her husband’s death. Throughout the 1990s, she continued to receive more cards and letters from fans than did other Opry performers, in part because fans knew that she answered each letter personally.

Mrs. Cooper suffered a stroke onstage at the Opry in 2001, and she could no longer perform on the show (though she did appear at the Grand Ole Opry House’s post-flood reopening).

According to the Grand Ole Opry, there will be no memorial service. Survivors include daughter Carol Lee Cooper, a fixture on the Opry and leader of The Carol Lee Singers.

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Contact Peter Cooper
The Tennessean


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