The traditional sounds of the southern Appalachian mountains were echoed in the music of Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper. In 1950, the Coopers and their band, the Clinch Mountain Clan, were named "the most authentic mountain singing group in the United States" by the music library of Harvard University.
Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper were born to sing traditional country music. Raised on a farm in Clinch County, WV, Stoney learned to play mountain music and Elizabethan ballads on the fiddle as a child. At the age of 12, he taught himself to play guitar and joined a traditional country band, the Green Valley Boys. Wilma Lee grew up singing with a family band, the Leary Family, that was one of the top-ranked Southern gospel groups. Her debut public performance came at the age of five. In 1938, she sang with the Leary Family at a national folk festival sponsored by Eleanor Roosevelt.
Stoney and Wilma Lee first performed together in the late '30s, when Stoney was hired by the Leary Family to play fiddle for ten dollars a week. Married in 1941, the Coopers performed as a duo, the Musical Partners, while still touring with the Learys. After leaving the group, they performed on the Virginia and West Virginia circuit until Wilma Lee gave birth to their first child, Carol Lee, and Stoney took a job for a beverage distributor to supplement their musical income. In the early '40s, the couple was heard often on radio stations in Nebraska, Indiana, Illinois, Arkansas, and North Carolina. Moving to Chicago, Stoney worked for a defense plant in Gary, IN.
The Coopers' musical career began to take off shortly after returning to West Virginia in 1947 and becoming cast members of The Wheeling Jamboree. They remained with the show for a decade, broadcasting every Saturday night over the CBS radio network. In 1957, they left the show, moved to Nashville, and became members of the Grand Ole Opry. They released the first of three Top Ten country hits, "Come Walk with Me," two years later. "There's a Big Wheel" and "Big Midnight Special" followed the same year. In the '60s and early '70s, the Coopers appeared on numerous television shows in the United States and Canada and in the movies Country Music on Broadway and W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings. They remained active with the Grand Ole Opry until the mid-'70s, when poor health forced Stoney's retirement. The Coopers' last recording together was Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper Sing the Carter Family's Greatest Hits.
Following Stoney's retirement, Wilma Lee, who holds a bachelor's degree in banking from Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, WV, continued to perform and record on her own. A few days before Stoney's death in 1977, she dedicated a performance of the Carter Family's "Little Darling Pal of Mine" to him during an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. The Smithsonian Institute honored her as "the first lady of bluegrass" at their annual folk festival in 1974. Wilma Lee's own performing days ended when she had a stroke while playing on the Grand Ole Opry stage in 2001, although she recovered sufficiently to appear at the Opry later as a non-performer and offer greetings and thank-yous to fans. Many of Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper's songs, including "Sunny Side of the Mountain," "The West Virginia Polka," "Thirty Pieces of Silver," "Wreck on the Highway," and "Legend of the Dogwood Tree," have gone on to become staples of country and bluegrass repertoires. ~ Craig Harris