Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper were country, gospel, and bluegrass musicians from Randolph County who recorded several top-ten country hits and performed on the Grand Ole Opry for 20 years.
Wilma Lee Cooper was born as Wilma Leigh Leary on February 7th, 1921 in Valley Head. She grew up singing since age 5 and performing gospel music regionally with her sisters and parents as the Leary Family Singers. According to Valley Head resident George Swecker, there was a strong tradition of community hymn singing. Wilma said that her family played at every single Protestant church in Elkins. The group performed at the National Folk Festival organized by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1938. They were recorded in April 1939 by Gordon Barnes for the Farm Security Administration at the Tygart Valley Homestead. These recordings are in the Library of Congress and are credited to Cathaline, Geraldine, Wilma Leigh [sic], and Mr. & Mrs. Jake Leary. The songs they recorded were “The Jericho Road,” “Crawdad Song,” and “Old Black Mountain Trail.”
Dale “Stoney” Cooper was born in Harman in 1918. He was a self-taught fiddler and guitarist by the time he was a teenager. Eventually he joined the Leary Family group as a fiddler, apparently, so he could spend time with the pretty sisters. His plan worked and he married Wilma two years later in 1941. The new couple set off on their own solo career and played shows at radio stations like WMMN in Fairmont and in other states including Arkansas, Nebraska, Illinois, and North Carolina. Starting in 1947 they landed a ten-year spot on WWVA’s Wheeling Jamboree, which is the second oldest country music radio show in the country. They were signed to Columbia Records where they recorded tracks like “Thirty Pieces of Silver” and “Sunny Side of the Mountain.” Later they signed to Roy Acuff’s Hickory Records in 1955 where they recorded the hits “Big Midnight Special” and “There’s a Big Wheel” (number 3 on the charts). Although they sold many records, while performing on the radio they made most of their money through PI’s, or advertising products on-air. Some of the products they advertised were makeup, razors, and even chickens and gravestones.
The duo moved to Nashville in 1957 and joined WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, the country’s oldest country radio show, where they were featured performers for 20 years. At the time they were unique for playing a more traditional country and bluegrass sound compared to the modern Nashville sound. The two managed to stay in show business and raise a family at the same time. Wilma said that while on tour they would make a bed for their daughter Carol in the car under the bass fiddle. Their daughter later had her own successful career and performed on the Opry with her own backing group the Carol Lee Singers. After Stoney’s death in 1977, Wilma continued recording and playing on the Opry with the Clinch Mountain Clan, who recorded for Rounder and Rebel record labels.
Wilma continued performing until she suffered a stroke onstage in 2001. The Smithsonian named her the First Lady of Bluegrass in 1974. Wilma Lee and Stoney were inducted into the WV Music Hall of Fame in 2008. Wilma Lee passed at the age of 90 in 2011.
Article Credit: Ben Duvall-Irwin, 2017-2019 AmeriCorps Member for the Elkins Depot Welcome Center