Loretta Lynn has it. Kitty Wells has it, too. But Wilma Lee Cooper has it and to spare: a voice that can stop a clock, and send the hands of time racing backward to an era when a mournful mountain ballad and country music were one and the same. It is a place far removed from the glitter and overdubs of modern day Nashville. It's the sort of honest, forceful, austere voice that makes you wonder just what it is that the Mandrell sisters do for a living.
In 1950 Harvard University named Cooper America's "most authentic mountain singer." Acclaim of this sort may have carried some weight in Massachusetts, but in the mountains, Hank Williams' opinion probably counted for more. To Williams, Cooper was the best female singer around. Further testimony is available on Cooper's latest recording, a collection of uncompromised traditional tunes -- as country as the patchwork blouse she's seen wearing on the album cover.
Though recently released, the album isn't new. It was recorded in 1976, a year before Wilma Lee's husband, Stony Cooper, died. For nearly 40 years, Wilma Lee and Stony Cooper's Clinch Mountain Clan traveled extensively, becoming staples of both the WWVA Jamboree and the Grand Old Opry.
A fine fiddler and a traditionalist through and through, Stony Cooper lived long enough to complete half the tracks on this album. He did so with the help of such bluegrass luminaries as banjo player Butch Robbins, bassist Jim Brock Jr. and Bill Carver, whose dobro helped give the Clinch Mountain Clan its distinctive sound.
Just the same, it's Wilma Lee's sincerity, her forthrightness that wins you over. In the finest country-music tradition, she's a storyteller, true to every word. And when the spirit moves her, as it clearly does on "What'll I Do With the Baby-O?", she can relax a little, allow the stern tone to slip from her voice, and sing as a if she's the last of mountain music's red-hot mamas. ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUM: Wilma Lee Cooper (Rounder 0143). THE SHOW: Friday night at the Birchmere.