Wilma Lee Cooper was sometimes called the She-Roy Acuff, but it could just have easily been the other war around. Well, no, old country was a man’s world so it couldn’t have been the other way around. The chasm between could and should is wide, indeed.
She sang in the southeast mountain style, throat wide open and loud. A voice that came up through her whole body and could shake the walls. Singers like Wilma Lee and Roy Acuff were true old-time country singers. They sang accented, but didn’t have the honkytonk nasal twang of a Hank Williams or the smooth slip note style of a Lefty Frizzell. These were people who grew up singing in churches and out of shape note hymnals where loud was equal to good. The two of them just also happened to be very good.
They were also set apart by their song selections. As the honkytonk years wore on and country music eventually began to go uptown the old ballads were largely left to the bluegrassers and collegiate revivalists. Wilma Lee certainly sang the honkytonk hits and barroom classics, but she also made sure there were older songs, like Poor Ellen Smith and Thirty Pieces of Silver mixed in, too.
She was born Wilma Leigh Leary in 1921, the oldest daughter of a West Virginia coal miner. Outside of their home a train ran every night at 8:15. Its lonesome whistle would blow and, like so many others, would give her thoughts of getting up and out. Her first band was with her family. She and her parents and sisters sang gospel music in churches and at funerals. In 1938 the family hired a young man named Stoney Cooper to play fiddle. He took the job not because it paid well, so much as it had three pretty daughters attached. A guy could do worse. Wilma Lee and Stoney were married a year later. The two would play music together until his death in 1977.
Two songs in particular are on my mind tonight. One, The Hills of Roane County. An old song with a twixt up story about a rambling man who marries a woman and for reasons unknown is attacked by her brother. He bides his time and then kills the brother a few months later forcing him to flee for many long years. When he does return he’s tried and convicted and sentenced to a life of hard labor. The odd little twist seems to be that he returns for his love of Roane County, rather than the woman left behind. One of the great bluegrass songs, Rank Strangers, would echo the thought of a person lost and rambling. He eventually makes it home, only to find everyone he meets is a rank stranger to him. The songs are twins in the old mountain ballad style and while they originate from across the sea, they both mine deep the existential world American settlers found themselves living in. The song also shares a history with Roy Acuff’s Precious Jewell. Roy would lift melodies and lines and well, sometimes whole songs and he even admits it on this one: “The best as I can remember it, a long time ago, I was playing in Virginia with Wilma Lee Cooper. She was still Wilma Leigh Leary at the time and she sang The Hills of Roane County. The song stuck in my memory…songwriters shouldn’t listen to songs at all while they’re writing, because they’ll get off on somebody else’s tune.”
The other song is a wonderful cover of Hank Williams’ Are You Walkin’ and A-Talkin’ For the Lord? It’s a call and response from 1953 with a big, boxy rhythm guitar, and a buried lapstyle. There’s hand claps and a gloriously jangly honkytonk piano at its desecrating best. This is pure revival music, something to keep the mountain devils at bay. God knows we all need that.
Wilma Lee passed away on September 13, 2011. She was 90 years old.
The Hills of Roane County, Wilma Lee Copper
Are You Walkin’ and A-Talkin’ For the Lord? Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper
Precious Jewell, Roy Acuff
Rank Stranger, The Stanley Brothers