Wilma Lee Cooper, 1921-2011, Valley Head, Randolph County
Dale T. “Stoney” Cooper, 1918-1977, Harmon, Randolph County
Alternately called bluegrass, mountain music, hillbilly, and country, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, a champion fiddler, first achieved prominence in the late 1940s. Growing up as Wilma Leigh Leary, she worked as a member of West Virginia’s regionally famed performing Leary Family, developing her celebrated delivery of gospel and devotional songs at the same time. For 40 years the two performed as one of country music’s most popular duos. Their decade-long stints on the Wheeling Jamboree and the Grand Ole Opry led to recording contracts with both Columbia and Decca. Wilma Lee, a skillful banjoist, guitarist and organist, wrote or co-wrote several of their most successful compositions, including “Cheated Too,” “Loving You,” “I Tell My Heart” and “Heartbreak Street.” The duo’s rousing, old-style jubilee hits of the ’50s and ’60s included “There’s a Big Wheel,” “This Old House” and “Big Midnight Special.” After Stoney’s death in 1977, WIlma Lee continued performing with her group the Clinch Mountain Clan and appeared on the Grand Ole Opry regularly until 2001, when she had a stroke onstage. Although doctors said she would never walk again, in February 2005, during an Opry set hosted by Emmylou Harris, Wilma Lee Cooper walked onto the stage of the Ryman Auditorium to a standing ovation. The Smithsonian Institution honored Wilma Lee as the “First Lady of Bluegrass” in 1974.