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Born in Valley Head, West Virginia, Leary sang in her youth with her family's gospel music group, The Leary Family, which included her parents and sisters. They recorded for the Library Of Congress in 1938. Wilma was born Willma Leigh Leary, according to the 1930 US Census.
In 1941, Leary married fiddler and vocalist Dale T. "Stoney" Cooper, who was a musical accompanist for the Leary Family, and the duo formed their own bluegrass group; Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper and the Clinch Mountain Clan. They were regulars for ten years on Wheeling, West Virginia's WWVA-AM's rival to the Grand Ole Opry, WWVA Jamboree, beginning in 1947 before joining the Opry in 1957.
Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper had remarkable record success in the late 1950s and early 1960s on Hickory Records given both their bluegrass sound (which has rarely been as commercially successful) and the damage rock-n-roll was doing to country music's popularity at the time. They scored seven hit records between 1956 and 1961, with four top ten hits on Billboard charts, notably "Big Midnight Special" and "There's a Big Wheel". They remained connected to the Leary Family tradition as well, recording popular gospel songs like "The Tramp on the Street" and "Walking My Lord Up Calvary's Hill".
Cooper died in 1977 but Wilma Lee stayed on the Opry as a solo star and on occasion recorded an album for a bluegrass record label. In 2001 she suffered a stroke while performing on the Opry stage which ended her career, but Cooper defied doctors who said she would never walk again and eventually returned to the Opry to greet and thank the crowds.
The Cooper's daughter, Carol Lee Cooper, was the lead singer for the Grand Ole Opry's backup vocal group, The Carol Lee Singers until she announced her retirement live on the Opry on March 24, 2012.
Wilma Lee Cooper died from natural causes on September 13, 2011, at her home in Sweetwater, Tennessee. She had been a member of the Opry since 1957. She was 90 years old. Her last solo performance on the Opry was at the Ryman Auditorium on February 24, 2001. Wilma Lee joined the Opry cast at the grand re-opening of the Opry House on September 28, 2010 for a group sing-along.
LP Gusto Records PO-242 (1975) Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper - Walking my Lord up Calvary's Hill