Wilma Lee Cooper obituary

Country musician considered the first lady of bluegrass

The husband-and-wife act was a staple feature of country music in the 1930s and 40s. When Wilma Lee Leary and Stoney Cooper, two youngsters from rural West Virginia, married and went on the road together in the early 40s, they were following a path beaten before them by the Chicago radio teams of Lulu Belle and Scotty Wiseman, and Bob Atcher and Bonnie Blue Eyes. But Wilma Lee, who has died aged 90, was of sterner musical stock, and instead of winsomeness or rustic comedy, she offered a mountain voice as hard as the coal of her native state. For almost 30 years, she and Stoney would be one of the most popular acts in traditional country music.

Born in Randolph County, West Virginia, Wilma Lee began singing as a child, in a family group with her parents and younger sisters. By 1938, the Leary Family Singers were well known enough to appear in Washington DC at the National Folk festival. With them was a young fiddler, Dale Troy "Stoney" Cooper, who took the job, he confessed later, chiefly in order to hang out with three attractive teenage girls. Three years later he and Wilma Lee began several years' apprenticeship on the country music circuit, she playing guitar or banjo, he the fiddle, giving personal appearances and broadcasting on stations in Nebraska, Indianapolis and Chicago before coming home in 1947 to West Virginia and the vastly popular Saturday-night Jamboree on the WWVA radio station in Wheeling, where they would settle for a decade.

Meanwhile, they were making popular recordings of pious or nostalgic songs such as Thirty Pieces of Silver, The Legend of the Dogwood Tree, Walking My Lord Up Calvary Hill and Sunny Side of the Mountain. In the words of Mary A Bufwack and Robert K Oermann, historians of women in country music, Wilma Lee "took Appalachian vocal fervour 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".

In 1957, their value enhanced by their recent hit Cheated Too, they were invited to join the cast of the Grand Ole Opry and moved to Nashville. They had further hits in 1959 with There's a Big Wheel and Big Midnight Special. They remained on the Opry roster for some 20 years, though by the 70s Stoney's health was failing and Wilma Lee generally fronted their band, the Clinch Mountain Clan, alone, as she continued to do after he died in 1977. She still had family close by, because her daughter Carol Lee, who had begun performing with her parents at the age of four, was now leading a vocal backing group on the Opry, the Carol Lee Singers.

Recognised as one of the most authentic mountain voices surviving in country music, Wilma Lee was asked to record her repertoire for the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution, which in 1974 honoured her as "the first lady of bluegrass". During the 70s and 80s, she made albums in her old style for Rounder Records and in a bluegrass idiom for Rebel, recruiting young musicians to give new life to old standbys such as Come Walk With Me and You Tried to Ruin My Name. Like her contemporaries Rose Maddox and Kitty Wells, in both her professionalism and the integrity of her music she stoutly represented the role women had fought to achieve in country music during her lifetime.

She continued to appear on the Opry until 2001, when she had a stroke while on stage. She is survived by Carol Lee and two granddaughters.

Wilma Lee Cooper, singer, born 7 February 1921; died 13 September 2011


Tony Russell

The GuardianTramp

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