It was perhaps 1970 when my parents carried me to Nashville and to the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium. Actually, we went to the Friday Night Opry. We lived with a Scottish parsimony, so we were staying in a camping trailer at a time before camp grounds could be readily found in the area. That same frugality explains why we attended the cheaper Friday night show. But it didn't matter. My folks did wonderful things for me, and since I was the youngest by six years, they were able to do wonderfully kind things for their weird son. Why weird? Because I was growing up in the late 60s and early 70s and my musical tastes were all in the direction of country music. And that did not mean just the popular country singers of that time, like George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell, and Johnny Cash. I liked the old country stars, meaning, those whose heyday was back in the 40s, 50s, and early 60s.
The trip to the Ryman on that Friday night was euphoric. I was there seeing and hearing Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, the Willis Brothers, and other favorite singers. Early in the show, one of my favorite acts came out. Jim Ed Brown, who still performs at the Opry, said something like, "Let's give a big hand to my next guests, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper and the Clinch Mountain Clan."
I don't remember what they sang. I know it was powerful. Wilma Lee was belting out on of the old mountain or gospel songs that they had made famous and all the while she was playing a guitar with zeal. Stoney would play some fiddle in the background and join in on singing the chorus.
They were great, but there was a sense even in 1970 that this couple were walking on stage from out of the past. Their looks, their outfits, and their songs seemed more like something from the old barn dances and radio hillbilly music shows of yesteryear than the product of the late 1960s Nashville sound.
Their tradition was the old pure country and mountain folk music. It is what is now considered bluegrass music. It was music learn't at the barn dance, the church singin', or the front porch on an evening after working on the farm. They were singing in the way and with the vigor of those early country artists who thought music was hard work and performing meant giving the crowd a good time. And while many of those singers nearly starved on the road, they reckoned that the singing lifestyle beat living at the end of the dirt road and struggling to grow corn on a mountain slope. (The other alternative usually involved moving to the city for a factory job. Those who did that provided the audiences for those who sang.)
I was thrilled a few days ago when Nicholas told me about seeing a Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper Greatest Hits music CD at a local convenience store. Nope, you don't find them at our rather weak Walmart and Target music centers, and there is not music store in Texarkana. I know I could have gotten the music from an on-line source, but I never did. So, I went into the convenience store, bought the CD and some peanut butter crackers. I am looking forward to listening to it in a few days. I hope it transports me back to that wonderful evening in Nashville many years ago.
More background on the Coopers:
Wilma Lee was born in 1921 in Valley Head, West Virginia, and she grew up singing with her family's gospel music group. In 1939, Wilma Lee married Dale T. "Stoney" Cooper, who was a fiddler and vocalist for with her family's band. They formed their own group known as Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper and the Clinch Mountain Clan. For years they performed on the Wheeling, West Virginia's WWVA-AM radio program and then joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1957.During their successful years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they had several hits including "Big Midnight Special" and "There's a Big Wheel." They also continued performing gospel songs like "The Tramp on the Street" and "Walking My Lord Up Calvary's Hill." Hank Williams once said that Wilma Lee was the best female country vocalist around.
Stoney Cooper died in 1977 from heart trouble, but Wilma Lee stayed on the Opry as a solo star and did occasional bluegrass recordings. Her performing career ended in 2001 when she suffered a stroke while performing on the Opry, but she was able some time later to return to the Opry to greet the fans.
Although largely forgotten today, they were a musical treasure from the Golden Age of Country Music.
For more on Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, click here and visit the Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper Fan Page.