100 Greatest Women, #94: Wilma Lee Cooper

Wilma Lee Cooper performs for the crowd during the three-hour Bluegrass show at the Municipal Auditorium for Fan Fair. (J.T. Phillips / The Tennessean) 6/6/1979

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition


Wilma Lee Cooper

2008 Ranking: #87 (-7)

When the Grand Ole Opry radio show was finally televised in the eighties, country fans both old and new got a glimpse of the men and women who had laid the foundation for modern country music. One such legend that they were introduced to was Wilma Lee Cooper, who had joined the Opry cast in 1957. However, her musical journey began long before that. By the time those viewers at home caught a glimpse of her, she had already parted ways with her previous long-running radio show, and had lost the other half of her long-running act.

Wilma Lee had begun her career with her sisters back home in West Virginia. She grew up singing gospel songs, a genre she would return to later in life. The trio gained nationwide attention when they won a state contest in 1938, where they were chosen to represent West Virginia at the National Folk Festival in Washington, DC. Their fast-rising star led them to add members to their band. Stoney Cooper signed up to be their fiddle player, but within a year, he had given Wilma his name.

The newlyweds were soon performing as Wilma Lee & Stanley Cooper, and after a brief stab at domestication, they were on the road, touring the south with their band, the Clinch Mountain Clan. The Coopers got their big break when they joined the cast of Jamboree in 1945. Over the next decade, they would score major sponsorships and record for Columbia Records. In 1957, they joined the Opry, and soon became that show’s guardians of the old mountain music.

Wilma Lee & Stanley Cooper put many classic mountain songs down on tape, and performed classics like “Poor Ellen Smith” and “Philadelphia Lawyer” from the Opry stage. After switching from Columbia to Hickory Wind, the duo scored a handful of top ten hits, including “Wreck on the Highway” and “There’s a Big Wheel.” Twenty years after joining the Opry cast, Stoney died of a sudden heart attack.

With great determination, Cooper carried on their legacy for the next twenty-five years. Her first solo album, simply titled Wilma Lee Cooper was released on Rounder Records in 1981 to rave reviews. She put together a new Clinch Mountain Clan, recorded new versions of her mountain classics and returned to her gospel roots, releasing Christian music with a bluegrass feel. In 2001, a stroke forced Cooper into retirement, but she returned to the Opry stage once more in 2005. She didn’t sing even one note, but the reverent crowd gave her a standing ovation, a deserving tribute to one of the great ladies from the early radio days of country music.  When the Opry re-opened in 2010, following a devastating flood that shuttered its doors for five months, Cooper joined the cast onstage for a singalong.

Cooper passed away on September 13, 2011 at her Sweetwater, Tennessee home.  She was ninety years old.

Essential Singles

  • “Come Walk With Me,” 1958
  • “Big Midnight Special,” 1959
  • “There’s a Big Wheel,” 1959
  • “Wreck on the Highway,” 1961

Essential Albums

  • Wilma Lee Cooper (1981)

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

Next: #93. Brandy Clark

Previous: #95. Sara Watkins

1 Comment

  1. When I went backstage at the Opry for the first time I was too shy to approach anyone. Wilma noticed me and came up to me to say hello and was so sweet. I will always remember her for being so kind.

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