Wilma Lee Cooper and Stoney Cooper are two of the most famous folks from Randolph County, West Virginia. They were a married couple who made their fame as American country musicians who performed on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. Really? Really. Read on…
Wilma Lee Leary
Wilma Lee Leary was born to Jacob and Lola Leary on February 7, 1921. While Jacob and Lola list their professions as farmer and teacher, respectively, they were also very musical. The United States Census of 1930 records her name was “Willma Leigh Leary”. Somewhere along the line, either Wilma simplified her name or the census taker got it wrong. While other sources say Leary was born in Valley Head, WV, the 1930 census finds the Leary Family in the Leadsville district, closer to Elkins, WV. I found Wilma in the 1937 Elkins High School yearbook, where she graduated. (Click on the picture below to make it larger. Wilma is listed as wistful, ladylike, lovable.)
Wilma Leary yearbook photo, Elkins High School 1937.
Wilma Lee played music in her family’s band, The Leary Family Singers, which is said to have been country, bluegrass, and gospel. The Leary Family Singers were hand-picked by Eleanor Roosevelt to represent West Virginia traditional music at a folk festival in Washington D.C. in 1938. It allegedly was at this same time that the Leary Family Singers recorded some of their music for the Library of Congress. (I can't find a record of this in the Library of Congress but I am looking. *See UPDATE below* Wilma played guitar and sang. Dale T. “Stoney” Cooper joined the band as fiddler and singer, and soon after, Stoney and Wilma were married sometime in 1939 or 1941. (I am unable to find a record of their marriage on Ancestry.)
Dale T. "Stoney" Cooper
Dale Troy Cooper was born in 1918 in Harman, West Virginia, son of Stellie M. and Kennie Cooper. The 1920 US Census finds his family in the Allegheny Mountains of the Dry Fork District. (Now, because there are so many Coopers in this region, please allow me to add that in the 1920 Census, Stoney’s siblings are listed as Hisel, Roosevelt, George, Herman, Madeline, and Dean.) I can find no record of Stoney attending or graduating high school, but back then, if your family didn’t live near a school (Harman School did not yet exist) the student or family had to move to be able to go to school past eighth grade.
Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper
After Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper were married they went on to become one of country music’s biggest acts. Stoney and Wilma Lee were cast as members of the WWVA Jamboree (Wheeling West Virginia) in 1947 and their band was known as the Clinch Mountain Clan. Some years later, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper joined the prestigious Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. (According to an email from the Grand Ole Opry in Tennessee, Stoney joined the GOO in 1954 and Wilma Lee joined in 1957. It seems odd that they would have joined separately, but there you have it.) How important was the Grand Ole Opry? Membership in the Grand Ole Opry is considered the pinnacle of country music and other prominent members include Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, the Carter Family, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Kitty Wells, and Minnie Pearl. Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper are part of this grand pantheon of classic country music.
Stars of Country Music
While Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper may not be current household names, they certainly enjoyed some fame back in the day. Perhaps their greatest country music hit was a version of “There’s a Big Wheel” written by Don Gibson which made Number 3 on the country charts in 1959. Wilma Lee and Stoney also scored with a version of Leadbelly’s “Big Midnight Special” during that same year. While Stoney Cooper died in 1977, Wilma Lee stayed on at the Grand Ole Opry and lived to the ripe old age of 90. According to her obituary in the New York Times, she was one of the favorite singers of Hank Williams and her voice is compared to that of the great Roy Acuff.
As proof of their continued popularity and longevity, you can still buy Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper albums here. You might also listen to this great version of “Walking My Lord Up Calvary’s Hill” here. Wilma Lee's voice makes me think that Hazel Dickens listened to Wilma Lee. There is a similarity in the amazing volume that the tiny Wilma Lee pushes out. And check out her guitar playing! She has some hot licks and a full half-guitar pick guard on her instrument. Wilma Lee has the high lonesome mountain sound in spades, and her gospel origins come through loud and clear.
I am also including some great photographs courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Collection below. If you click on any of these photos they get larger and reveal more detail. Also: I cannot find out why Dale T. Cooper was known as "Stoney". If anyone knows, please let me know!
UPDATE: 9/8/2014 - Local resident and genealogist Ted Harman asked around regarding Stoney's nickname and here is what he told me he heard from some of Stoney's relatives who still live in the Dry Fork region high in the Allegheny Mountains of Randolph County: People who saw Stoney perform called him "Smiley" because of the happy smile he wore while onstage. Allegedly, Dale Cooper did not like this nickname and so they called him "Stoney" instead. Perhaps Dale thought this made him sound more manly.
UPDATE: 9/9/2014 - I wrote to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and received this reply: If you'll go to our online card catalog and enter "leary" in the search box, you'll get seven hits, three of which are by members of the Leary family -- "Crawdad song," "Jericho road," and "Old black mountain trail."
These would appear to be the Leary family, but they were recorded at Tygart Valley Homesteads in Elkins in 1939, not in D.C.
We also have recordings from the 1938 National Folk Festival. The overall description of the collection is this: "One 12-inch and 39 16-inch discs of instrumentals, songs, dance music, and folk dancing (Morris dance, sword dance, square dance, and social dances) performed by Scottish, American Indian, Spanish American, Anglo-American, African American, and Pennsylvania Dutch performers. Includes folk songs, ballads, fiddle tunes, coal miner's songs and music from Pennsylvania; cowboy songs; sea songs; Chinese music; Turkish music; Slavonic tamburitza music; Bach chorales; orchestral music; interviews; and lectures performed during the National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C. from May 6-8, 1938. Also includes a radio air check on United States foreign policy and defense; and several other radio programs not recorded at the National Folk Festival, including a WPA-sponsored program featuring the Prince George High School orchestra. The collection includes 3/4 linear inch of song lists, newspaper articles, and programs. Sarah Gertrude Knott makes some introductions. Recorded primarily at the National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C., by the U.S. Recording Company, May 6-8, 1938." I've looked through the inventory for the recordings from the 1938 festival, but find no additional references to anyone named Leary. (These recordings are also in the online card catalog series, so if there had been any Learys for the 1938 festival recordings, that should have shown up with the first search I did above. But the number of recordings we have probably does not reflect all of the performances that took place at the festival.)
So I'm afraid I cannot verify from this end some of the statements about the Leary family's performances.
Thus far, we can only put entire collections online, not individual cuts. And putting collections online requires both a copyright search on each song (to determine whether it is still under copyright protection) and a good-faith attempt to contact each performer or performer's estate in order to secure their permission to place the recording online. So right now we are not working on more of the historical collections with a view to putting them online, but are instead focused first on digital preservation.
Above information from Library of Congress provided by Judith Gray, Reference Specialist at the American Folklife Center.