Saturday, January 19, 2013

Remembering Stoney Cooper

Many of today's Grand Ole Opry fans are familiar with the late Wilma Lee Cooper, who passed away in 2011 after being a member of the Grand Ole Opry for 54 years. As time has passed, many people have forgotten that she originally came to the Opry with her husband Dale T. Cooper, known professionally as Stoney, and that they performed on the Grand Ole Opry for over 20 years as Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper. It was on Saturday January 22, 1977 that Stoney Cooper performed for the last time on the Grand Ole Opry.

Dale Cooper was born on October 16, 1918 in Harman, Randolph County, West Virginia. Growing up in the Appalachian mountains influenced the type of music that he would play. He became a proficient guitar and fiddle player. While in high school, he performed with the Leary Family Singers and in 1941, he married Wilma Lee Leary.

Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper formed the Clinch Mountain Clan and began performing in Fairmont, West Virginia on WMMN radio. In 1947 they became part of the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree. They stayed as members of the Jamboree until 1957 when they left to come to Nashville and join the Grand Ole Opry, which they did on January 12, 1957.

As a duo, Wilma Lee & Stoney ranked as one of country music's premier husband-and-wife teams for almost three decades. After originally signing with Rich-R-Tone Records in 1947, they would eventually join Columbia Records, where they had their first chart success. Their hit records included "Legend of the Dogwood Tree," "Thirty Pieces of Silver," "Sunny Side of the Mountain," and Walking My Lord up Calvary Hill." In 1955, Wilma Lee & Stoney moved to Hickory Records where they would have the biggest hits of their career. Those hits included "Cheated Too," "Come Walk With Me," "Big Midnight Special" and "There's a Big Wheel." Their chart success ended in 1961, but they continued to record for various smaller labels.

Being from the Appalachian mountains and rural West Virginia, they kept their sound simple. The Clinch Mountain Clan had an acoustical sound that featured the dobro, fiddle and mandolin.

Stoney Cooper had health issues during his later years and passed away on March 22, 1977 at the age of 58. Wilma Lee, of course, continued on at the Opry as a solo act, and did some recordings on her own.

As most Opry fans know, Wilma Lee & Stoney had one daughter, Carol Lee, who in 1973 formed the Carol Lee Singers, who were the back-up singers at the Opry for many years, until Carol Lee retired in 2012. Carol Lee originally came to the Opry with her parents and was part of their group during their early years on the show. Carol Lee left the Opry after she married Jimmie Snow, the son of Hank Snow.

After Stoney passed away and Wilma Lee continued on her own career, she received many awards and at times, has been mentioned as a Hall of Fame candidate. Yet that success has come largely on the career that she had with Stoney. As it has been over 35 years since he has passed away, I think people have forgotten what a great duo they were. We are lucky that the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, among other outlets, have continued to stock a greatest hits CD by the Coopers. While I really believe that Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame, I just don't see it happening. They are another of the legendary country acts that have been lost to history. If you haven't, take time to go back and listen to some of their great recordings and you will see what I mean.

To remember Stoney Cooper, here is the Grand Ole Opry line-up from Saturday January 22, 1977, which was the final Grand Ole Opry performance for Stoney.

1st show
6:00: Vietti
Bill Anderson (host): Don't She Look Good
Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper: God Gave Noah Rainbow Sign
Lonzo & Oscar: Los Vegas
Ernie Ashworth: The Shamrock Motel
Mary Lou Turner: It's Different With You
Bill Anderson & Mary Lou Turner: Sometimes

6:30: Mrs Grissoms
Billy Walker (host): Don't Stop In My World
Jim & Jesse: Ballad of Thunder Road
Willis Brothers: Wild Side of Life
Billy Walker: Behind Closed Doors

6:45: Rudy's
Roy Drusky (host): Peel Me A Nanner
Ray Pillow: Bubbles in My Beer
Justin Tubb: As Long As There's A Sunday
Roy Drusky: One Day at A Time

7:00: Shoney's
Porter Wagoner (host): On A Highway Headed South
Jim Ed Brown & Helen Cornelius: Saying Hello, Saying I Love You, Saying Goodbye
Skeeter Davis: Only Mama That'll Walk The Line
Charlie Louvin: Sweet Texas
Jim Ed Brown: I've Rode with the Best
Skeeter Davis: I'll Fly Away
Porter Wagoner: Cold Hard Facts of Life/Carroll County Accident/Green Grass of Home/The Funky Grass Band

7:30: Standard Candy
Roy Acuff (host): Wabash Cannonball
Billy Grammer: I Saw Your Face in the Moon
Minnie Pearl: Careless Love
Crook Brothers/Ralph Sloan Dancers: Soldier's Joy
Roy Acuff: Hold to God's Unchanging Hand

8:00: Martha White
Grandpa Jones (host): Banjo is the Instrument for Me
Wilburn Brothers: Making Plans
4 Guys: Don't It Make You Want to Go Home
Jimmy C Newman: Diggy Liggy Lo
Marion Worth: Under Your Spell Again
Wilburn Brothers: Arkansas
Grandpa Jones: Arkansas Traveler

8:30: Stephens
Hank Snow (host): Merry Go Round of Love
Jeanne Pruett: Hold to My Unchanging Love/Love Me/You Don't Need to Move A Mountain/Satin Sheets
Stu Phillips: Have a Nice Day
Stonewall Jackson: Why I'm Walking
Fruit Jar Drinkers: Lost Indian
Jeanne Pruett: Break My Mind
Hank Snow: My Mother

2nd show
9:30: Kelloggs
Bill Anderson (host): Liars 1; Believers 0
Billy Walker: Funny How Time Slips Away
Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper: Keep on the Firing Line
Jim & Jesse: A Bird With Broken Wings Can't Fly
Lonzo & Oscar: Thank God I'm A Country Boy
Ernie Ashworth: Each Moment Spent with You
Mary Lou Turner: Cheating Overtime
Bill Anderson: Mama Sang A Song

10:00: Fender
Jim Ed Brown (host): w/Helen Cornelius: I Don't Want to Have to Marry You
Roy Drusky: Don't It Make You Want To Go Home
Skeeter Davis: On The Way Home
Jim Ed Brown: Morning

10:15: Union 76
Porter Wagoner (host): Wake Up, Jacob
Charlie Louvin: When I Stop Dreaming
Ray Pillow: Gone at Last
Porter Wagoner: When Leah Jane Would Sing/Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot

10:30: Trailblazer
Roy Acuff (host): Just A Friend
4 Guys: Cottonfields/Maria
Willis Brothers: Truck Stop
Roy Acuff: Shake Hands With Your Mother Again

10:45: Beechnut
Grandpa Jones (host): Baptism of Jesse Taylor
Billy Grammer: Somewhere My Love
Crook Brothers/Ralph Sloan Dancers: Old Joe Clark
Grandpa Jones: Night Train to Memphis

11:00: Coca-Cola
Hank Snow (host): Wreck of the Old 97/One More Ride
Jeanne Pruett: Satin Sheets
Wilburn Brothers: Country Kind of Feelings
Fruit Jar Drinkers: Rachel
Justin Tubb: Cold Brown Bottle
Kirk McGee: Alabama Jubilee/Just Because
Hank Snow: Black Diamond

11:30: Elm Hill
Jimmy C Newman (host): Take Me Back Into Your Heart
Stonewall Jackson: Don't Be Angry/Be & You & A Dog Named Boo
Stu Phillips: Have A Nice Day
Marion Worth: Just A Little Lovin
Jimmy C Newman: Jambalaya

I don't know what it is, or was, but it seems like after Stoney Cooper died, nothing was ever mentioned about him again. It was all about Wilma Lee Cooper. But, Stoney was a star in his own right and I thought it would be nice to remember.


  1. Byron, you are right. We tend to forget about Stoney. Their big success on the charts was with him. Wilma Lee was blessed to have a long life, and that makes us more aware of her. I gather that Stoney also had had a lot of health problems for a while before his death, which also made us tend to pay a little less attention to him--and they were a GREAT duo.

    And I think I counted 29 members, figuring the Fruit Jar Drinkers and Kirk McGee as one. I looked at tonight's lineup. Pete Fisher should hang his head in shame.

  2. It would be really great if the Coopers were inducted in the Hall of Fame [in 2013]. Then Stoney would be NEVER be forgotten.

  3. Fred, Bismarck:

    Thank you for remembering Stoney, Byron. The Coopers not only made some of the most rousing country music of all time, they were up there with Ernest Tubb in being the kindest to their fans. I experienced this personally at a package show in your neighborhood, either Akron or Canton, in 1959 or '60.

    I was listening to the Opry in 1977 -- back in those quaint days when you could pull it in no matter where you were living in the U.S. -- the weekend before Stoney died. On the Opry, E.T. dedicated a number to Stoney, who (as it turned out) was dying in a hospital in Nashville. The song was "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." I thought at the time, "That will cheer him up."

    No harm -- Stoney had been in a coma since his final heart attack.

  4. Fred again:

    Your fault, Byron, if you got me going on a beer-drinkin' Saturday night about Stoney Cooper.

    Wilma Lee was, deservedly, more prominent; but, oh, that Stoney -- not only on his bluesey fiddle and vocals harmony, but on his solos, including the unforgettable "Sunny Side of the Mountain." To me, on that one, he sounds like a bull elk bugleing from the mountaintainside.

    Stoney had voice problems at the end, but rallied for one of their absolutely best performances, "Starlit Heaven," on the self-titled 1976 LP on Rounder, now out there as a CD.

  5. Since Wilma Lee did most of the vocals when they were performing together, it would make sense that she could carry on without Stoney, as long as she had her group of musicians with her. If Wilma Lee had passed away instead of Stoney at the time, I really don't think Stoney would have been able to maintain his career at the level it was at.

    Like I said, it has always made me wonder later in her life and she was getting the various awards that Stoney was hardly ever mentioned. I was listening the night that she came back to the Opry to be honored for her 50 years as an Opry member, and I just don't seem to remember any mention of Stoney. Granted that he had passed away 30 years before, but it still would have been nice to mention how Wilma Lee got to where she was.

  6. Byron:
    I agree, at this point I cannot see the Cooper's getting into the Hall of Fame. I personally believe they should be however.

    I don't think you could justify putting Wilma Lee in though without Stoney. Even though she performed longer as a solo act (after his death), their chart success was with Stoney.

  7. Fred, Bismarck:

    David, you have it exactly right, it was as a team that they really caught fire on the charts in the late 1950s. For the Coopers at the top of their game, go to youtube for the color clip, introduced by Ralph Emery, of them doing "Big Midnight Special" and "There's a Big Wheel." This was from a movie, I believe: "Country Music Goes to Broadway," or something similar.

  8. The Coopers, like Jimmy C. Newman, I believe should be in the Hall of Fame. Their styles are unique and unmatched. Their cart success was not near as good of some of those of their generation (Faron Young, Carl Smith, Patsy Cline, Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells..etc), but the Hall of Fame is suppose to honor the "Best of The Best" of Country genres and styles. I think the Cooper's and Newman both merit that distinction.

    I would not call the Cooper's bluegrass nor country-honky tonk per say. They were Mountain Music, and like Cajun, a side genre of the Country Music Family that the CMA has yet to include in the Hall of Fame. If Honky Tonk, Bluegrass, Rock, Rock-a-billy, Comedy, Western, Swing, Gospel, Songwriting, Executives, session musicians & others have a place, I think there should be room for the Cooper's and Newman.

    But as we have discussed before on this blog, it does not look good for either of the legendary acts.

  9. I like Wilma Lee and Stoney but I can tell that all of you are more educated on the Coopers than I am. One thing that I was thinking in terms of Wilma Lee going solo is that at the time she began to carry on alone there weren't many if any females in bluegrass music. I realize that she may not have been considered strictly bluegrass, as David said....more Mountain Music, but wasn't the bluegrass and folk festivals most of what she was working. How many females were fronting bands at those shows in the late 70's or early 80's?

    Knightsville, IN

  10. Fred, Bismarck:

    Good point --I can't think of one, other than Wilma Lee. Might be another argument for the Hall (for both her and Stoney). But as Byron and others have said, we're likely whistling into the wind here. Nashville, the Hall included, seems to have moved so far in the other direction I don't think it can even see people like the Coopers anymore.

  11. Thank you so much for the column remembering Stoney Cooper and Wilma Lee. In 1995, while on a trip to the Opry birthday celebration with my brother, my grandfather passed away. We stayed through the old Opry Fan Club party which was always one of the annual highlights where we got to meet so many of the great Opry legends.

    I mentioned to Skeeter Davis that my grandfather had passed away and we were leaving that afternoon and wouldn't be able to stay for that night'S Opry. Wilma Lee, who was sitting next to Skeeter, overheard what I said and that night, as we were listening to the Opry on our 9 hour drive home, Wilma Lee said she wanted to dedicate her song to the two young men at the Fan Club party whose grandfather had passed away and she did "The Legend of the Dogwood Tree."

    I was so overwhelmed that she would remember what I had said in passing and that she would dedicate her song to us. I periodically corresponded with her after that and always got a hand-written Christmas card every year. And we had the chance to visit with her several more times in person. What a kind, genuine, Christian lady she was. We were back at the Opry in 1999 the first time they went back to the Ryman and she dedicated "Big Midnight Special" to us.

    I got majorly into the music of Wilma Lee and Stoney and collected all their LPs (of which there aren't many) as well as song books and sheet music, concert posters -- anything I could find on them. I was overjoyed when Bear Family finally came out with their outstanding box set because many of the tracks were never released in album form because Wesley Rose of Hickory Records told them people wouldn't buy their albums -- which I believe Wilma Lee said was the tipping point at which Stoney said he was through recording for Hickory. I think I heard her say there was enough materials for three or four additional albums on Hickory that was never released. Decca then tried to move them toward a more electric sound for one album before they eventually found their way back to their authentic sound on a couple of great independent albums "Tribute to Roy Acuff," "Wilma Lee & Stoney Sing the Carter Family" followed by a super album on Rounder Records that was half finished when Stoney died which Wilma Lee finished solo.

    Wilma Lee was often referred to as "the female Roy Acuff" because of her strong singing voice. After Stoney died she carried the torch for traditional mountain music and was tremendously loyal to the Opry even finishing her song the night she had her stroke on stage during the Opry at the Ryman. Even after her stroke, while she never peformed again, I visited with her a couple more times at Opry Fan Club parties where she regularly came to sign autographs (despite being paralyzed in one arm) and visit with her fans.

    As far as a pioneering husband/wife time, there aren't many more deserving for the Hall of Fame than Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper. I had always hoped the Hall would elect them while she was alive to see it but it wasn't to be.

    People like Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, Johnny & Jack, the Maddox Brothers & Rose, Jimmy C. Newman, the Carter Sisters, Stonewall Jackson, Cowboy Copas and Mac Wiseman were road warriors of the 1950s who loved their music and loved their fans even more. It's just too bad they are largely forgotten for the impact they had. The multi-millionaires today who cite 70s rock stars are walking on the backs of people like Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper.

    If you don't have the Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper Bear Family set, I'd highly recommend it.


  12. Oldtimeopry:

    What a nice tribute to Wilma Lee. Most people I talk to about music who are not really into country or bluegrass do not understand or even believe the relationship these wonderful people have or had with the fans. Most of the people they can relate to consider their music a means to an end much like the line in Bill Anderson's "Where Have all Our Hero's Gone"-the football player who said that football was not the end,just a means to an end, meaning the girls and the good times. They can't understand how music can be more than just the money, that it can be a passion and you can appreciate the fans who like what you do, buy your records and pay to see you.

    I think a lot of the reason that has all changed with the newer younger stars is exactly what you state about those folks. They instantly, before they can think, cite those 70's rock stars as their influence. They have no idea who Roy Acuff or Ernest Tubb are, let alone Cowboy Copas, Stonewall Jackson or Wilma Lee Cooper. And this is a different time in our culture where many do not appreciate how they got to their current station in life or just don't care.

    A topic we could all ponder is just why is it that the young mainstream artist of today cite those rock stars as an influence and not Snow, Price, Robbins, Shepard or even Cash, Haggard or Nelson. If I had to pick someone to point the finger at I would look hard at the big cigar guy behind the chair at the record companies and radio stations and the consultants to those fat cats who just have to have a larger demographic to sell more units. They homoginized our music until you can't tell any difference and the main ingredient became 70's rock and southern rock. My younger brother has worked in radio and TV for over 20 years and the program director at a major midwest station told him 20 years ago that one day it was all going to be one music. We're almost there! If it was one good music I might be able to accept it.

    Oldtime, you have some very precious memories and I would dare say that Wilma Lee is not the only person you have had this type of experience with. Those of us who have had the chance to see so many of these great Opry and country folks perform and maybe get to meet or know them just a little can really count our blessings. And, we should be thankful that they were able and willing to perform well past most folks retirement. To site another song, Ray Price this time-Perhaps for the rest looking back isn't best, but for me it's a way to survive. Okay, not completely, there are still some good one's left.

    Thanks again for sharing your memories.

    Knightsville, IN

  13. Fred, Bismarck:

    Thanks for great memories and insights, everyone.

    I'll second Oldtime on the goodness of the Cooper set on Bear Family, "Big Midnight Special." There are four CDs containing all their Columbia and Hickory material, the heart of their career. With this and the Bear box on Johnnie & Jack, you can last on that mythical desert island for a long time.