We are greatly honored to speak with Grand Ole Opry member and country music legend Carol Lee Cooper. Carol Lee is one of the most well known and respected figures in country music. She was born to Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, two musical greats who left a great impact on the country music industry. Growing up in a music family it comes as no surprise that Carol Lee decided to follow in her iconic parent’s footsteps as an entertainer. “Big Midnight Wheel,” “Come Walk With Me,” and “Loving You” are just a few of the massive hits that catapulted Wilma Lee, Stoney, and Carol Lee to superstardom in the late 1950’s. In 1957, Carol Lee received the highest honor of being inducted into the legendary Grand Ole Opry alongside her parents making it a historic occasion. Since then, Carol Lee has gone on to host her own successful talk show, “Nashville Nights with Carol Lee” interviewing some of the biggest stars in country, as well as landing a coveted spot on the Grand Ole Opry as the lead singer of her own singing group, “The Carol Lee Singers.” Carol Lee has recorded various genres of music including Christian and Country. She made history by being the first woman to become an announcer on the “Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree.” Carol Lee can be found every week at the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, in the heart of music city, Nashville Tennessee! Country Stars Central sat down with Carol Lee in Nashville to speak with her about her career, and phenomenal singing group, “The Carol Lee Singers!”
The Carol Lee Singers: Since 1973 they have been the vocal backup group on the Grand Ole Opry and have performed with just about every star that has graced that historic stage…. From Porter Wagoner and Minnie Pearl to Jimmy Wayne and Carrie Underwood…. They may be behind the scenes but the show could not go on without them. Join us for a very special visit with the Carol Lee Singers on this 147th episode of Bill Anderson Visits with The Legends. It'll change the way you listen to the music.
(CSC) 1. It is great to finally chat with you! What’s the latest with Carol Lee?
(Carol Lee Cooper)
Well Christian, just recently my group and I did the XM radio show with Bill Anderson called “Visits With The Legends” on channel 2 on XM radio. They aired it for twenty-four hours last week, and people can watch for that on Bill Anderson’s segment. We did a whole one-hour interview, which is more than anyone has ever done on the Carol Lee singers. It was an exciting thing to do and Bill is such a good interviewer.
(CSC) 2. You were known for landing interviews of a lifetime when you hosted your talk show “Nashville Nights with Carol Lee,” what was it like being able to have your own talk show and interview many of your fellow artist friends?
(Carol Lee Cooper)
I was really blessed because I got to interview everyone from Dolly Parton to Garth Brooks to Andy Griffith and legends of all genres, even Richard Petty. We did one show on racing and the personalities that were big at the time, and he was and is the king. I also got to interview Bobby Allison and Chet Atkins. I wish I could have interviewed Ernest Tubb because we worked with him a lot but I didn’t have my show at that time. That man has so many treasures of things that he has said. Garth Brooks said before on one of my shows “From everything I’ve ever heard about Ernest Tubb, it would be really great if there was a billboard up every week that had an Ernest Tubb phrase that would teach somebody something.” He was so full of wisdom with our business; you could just sit at his feet and learn forever. I appreciated the fact that Garth appreciated a legend like Ernest Tubb. I’ve interviewed so many, with six years of shows on WSM radio. There were so many, I could go on listing forever… I was truly blessed.
(CSC) 3. You became a member of the Grand Ole Opry alongside your parents at just 14 years old in 1957. What do you recall from that special evening?
(Carol Lee Cooper)
I was 13 the first time I performed at the Opry with my mother and father. That was the year before because they had called us to come and be a guest on the show, and that’s how they would try you out so to speak. A year later, we were called to come and become members of the Opry when I was 14, and it was very exciting. The stars that were there at the time were Patsy Cline, Ray Price, Chet Atkins, Jim Reeves, Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff, Faron Young, and Marty Robbins; people that really paved the way in country music. It was amazing to look around and see all of these people that I had heard on the radio from when we traveled in the car. These were people that I was aware of with their abilities, and it was just a star-studded night. I was just very much taken by the fact that we were now a part of that. When mother and father and I joined the Opry, we were signed by David “D” Kilpatrick who just recently passed away this year. He also signed Porter Wagoner, The Everly Brothers, Stonewall Jackson and many others. He came and did my show “Nashville Nights with Carol Lee,” and told the story of how he invited me to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry. For many years I didn’t really know that I was a member, and my mother told me years later, and I said, “No I didn’t know that.” D. Kilpatrick said “At the time Rock & Roll was killing us, Elvis was new on the scene, and I needed youth on that Opry stage. I saw you and your mother and father perform, and when I saw you, I thought you were just as cute as a button, and that’s exactly what we needed on the Opry stage!” He then went to my father and mother and, “I want to sign you as members of the Opry, but not unless I can have Carol Lee too.” I remember one time Patsy Cline and I had a conversation back behind the curtain at the Ryman, and she was telling me that she was having sinus trouble, and how she had to go to the doctor for that because it was affecting her voice and her singing. We were talking and it was just like family, it was like being in your living room. She was such a great singer with just an incredible voice. She was also very approachable, and you could talk with her. I remember the dressing room that we all shared, it had a little bathroom in there and there was very little room outside that bathroom where you could get ready. You could barely turn around in there. (Laughs) When I came back to the Opry fourteen years later, I shared that same dressing room with Dolly and I told her how beautiful her fingernails were. She was telling me about her fingernails, and she would say to me, “Oh I just glue em’ on honey,” and she would tell me always to carry my little tube of glue with me everywhere because you never know when you might pop a nail off. (Laughs) These were things that would just go on backstage, and you just got to know people because we were all so close.
(CSC) 4. What prompted the switch from performing as an artist to having your own backup vocal group?
(Carol Lee Cooper)
I left early as a teenager and was married for about 14 years, and had two daughters, and one was a little baby, and the other was 9 years old. When I left, I had no intention of coming to the Opry because I didn’t think the music world would want someone back in that had been out of it for 14 years, so it never crossed my mind. Bud Wendell who was the manager at the time told my father that he wanted to bring me back into the show. I came back to the Opry working with my mother and father, and I didn’t have a group at that time, so I came back as a performer with my parents. The first time I played guitar and the second time I came as a singer. My dad encouraged me to think about recording solo, and I really wanted to record solo. We would go around to different places and we talked to different companies to see what they wanted. I quickly learned that if I was going to do that, I was going to have to hit the road to be able to get out there and get a fan base and all the other things that working the road does for your career. Bud Wendell came to me and said I understand you have a group, and he told me that Charley Pride had wanted the four men who sang backup on the Opry to be his opening act. They wanted to take a leave of absence for the summer to tour with Charley. Bud wanted to know if we were interested in filling in for them while they were gone, and here we are 36 years later; I’ve had a group there for 35 years now. I have my regular group which consists of Rod Fletcher, who’s been with me going on 12 years, and Nora Lee Allen and Dennis McCall have been with me 28 years. They are all my regular Carol Lee singers.
(CSC) 5. Growing up in such a talented musical family, what did you learn from your parents?
(Carol Lee Cooper)
I learned how to sing harmony with my family, how to do those real country trios, and how to swap parts in the middle of a line. I also learned how to play guitar, and I had asked my dad how to play fiddle but he first wanted me to learn how to play guitar. Once I learned how to play the guitar he kept me on it, and I never was able to get a fiddle lesson. (Laughs) My mother taught me how to make a “g” chord, and then I would ask her what chords would go with it, and she showed me “c” and “d. “Then she showed me an “a” chord, and little by little, that’s how I learned how to play guitar. Mother would play the open chords and I would play the closed chords. It sounded like a snare, and I learned that through them. I watched my dad host a show and be the emcee. I learned so much from them. Mother was always standing behind me when I was a little girl and saying “smile, smile,” and that still carries over into my work today. I still feel her saying “smile,” and I always try to smile at the people because I think of them as friends and I want them to feel comfortable when they watch us perform.
(CSC) 6. Were there any legendary “female” artists that have had a major influence on you and your style of singing?
(Carol Lee Cooper)
I really never did pick one out. Songs would be what I would like the most, because if I liked the song, then I would like that artist. I grew up around most of them, and it was so natural and normal to be around these people that I didn’t see them as something so untouchable. If I had not grown up in the music field, I probably would have had more of those artists as heroes. I’ve always liked real good harmony like Jim Ed Brown and The Browns. I remember they had a song out called, “I Take The Chance” and I told daddy that I heard that song on the radio and that we ought to learn it. He said told me he had also heard the song and that they did it well but it couldn’t be outdone so he told me, “Leave that one alone.” (Laughs) Because of my mother and father, Conway Twitty heard our trio sound and he wanted that trio sound on some of his records. I eventually was hired and I worked in the studio with Conway for 10 years recording such songs like “Linda On My Mind.” Ellie White, who has passed away now, knew how to do that bent harmony, it isn’t like regular straight harmony… it’s very different. Ellie was working with Conway at the time and decided they needed Wilma Lee, my mother to do a song with them. They called our house and asked if she would record with him but she wasn’t able to get out of the house because she had recently had some surgery, so my father suggested me. My father and I went over to meet with Conway, and I practiced while we did some rehearsing together. Conway was all smiles, and he said “I’ll take it.” He asked if I could do some more songs, and that lead to 10 years of songs. I have about twenty #1 awards on my wall from being on Conway’s #1 hits. That harmony that I learned from my parents is what paved the way and gave me a whole new career when I worked with Conway.
(CSC) 7. You recorded many hit songs with your legendary parents; do you have a particular favorite that comes to mind?
(Carol Lee Cooper)
I loved “Big Midnight Special,” “Come Walk With Me,” and years later I recorded some Gospel albums. I have always loved “Walking My Lord Up Calvary’s Hill.” Those are some of my favorites that I recorded.
(CSC) 8. You have worked with a lot of great artists on the Grand Ole Opry stage; can you share some of the memorable experiences from the many years that you’ve been on the show?
(Carol Lee Cooper)
I’ll never forget we were getting ready to work with Dolly, and we were on the opposite side of the stage that she was coming in on. As soon as they announced her name, she came out with her hands up toward the sky waving to the people, and the piano and band was between us and Dolly, and both of her hands went down…she hit the floor going right out on stage. Of course, that wasn’t a laughing matter, but she recovered so well. She got right back up real quick and got to the microphone and said “Now that’s what I get for wearing these new shoes,” and just laughed it off and went right on with the show. I have fallen on that stage as well before. One time, Porter Wagoner found out that Rod Fletcher, my bass singer was having a birthday that night, and after we finished singing, we were told to wait. In the meantime, the stage hands had changed what was behind me, and now all of a sudden there were a couple of amps that were sideways and leaned back that I couldn’t see. Porter took the microphone and asked everyone to sing Happy Birthday, and at that time I backed up and got my heel stuck in that amp. I could not get it loose for the life of me; all I could do was fall backwards. I fell right out there on that stage as well, and you could hear the whole audience gasp. It sounds a lot more dramatic when there are thousands of people doing it! (Laughs) They helped me up and the stage hands felt so bad for putting the amps behind me, but I told them it wasn’t their fault. I was also honored one night to get to be a part of the Gatlin Brothers segment. Larry Gatlin was hosting that night and they were getting ready to do “All The Gold In California.” His brother Rudy hadn’t gotten there yet for the performance so he came up to me and asked if I wanted to be a Gatlin Brother that night, and I told him yes of course!
(CSC) 9. What can fans expect next from Carol Lee?
(Carol Lee Cooper)
I’m hoping to get another interview show started, because I really enjoy doing those kinds of shows and interviewing people. I was blessed to get to do that for six years and I did my own research like you, which takes a lot of time. A lot of interviewers don’t do the research themselves; they have a team of people that do the research on the artists and present the questions to the interviewer. I always made sure that I went in with more questions than I would have enough time to get answers for. If the artist that I was interviewing took me in different directions, which they would at times, I would have enough questions to go with them. Another thing that my fans can look forward to is my Christmas CD/DVD titled, "A Christmas Carol" which will be available through my website www.carolleecooper.com. It is a wonderful production of the famous Charles Dickens classic, "A Christmas Carol" that I originally produced for my WSM radio talk show, "Nashville Nights with Carol Lee.” It features Little Jimmy Dickens as Bob Cratchit, Jeanne Pruett as Mrs. Cratchit, Jimmy C. Newman as Marley's ghost, Bill Anderson and Johnny Russell as the Christmas spirits, Porter Wagoner as the Gentleman, Mike Snyder, Jan Howard, Jeannie Seely, Skeeter Davis, Little David Wilkins, Jumpin' Bill Carlisle, and my daughter, Shannon Snow Rogers, and features the last production performance by Grandpa Jones as "Ebenezer Scrooge.” It is wonderfully narrated by the "Storyteller" himself, Tom T. Hall. The CD contains over 50 minutes of this moving masterpiece with a bonus track of The Carol Lee Singers performing "Away In A Manger". On the bonus disc, I tell some of my favorite Christmas Memories and Stories including "The Making Of A Christmas Carol". Narrated biographies and pictures are also included. With all of the talent of these great Country Music Legends, I hope "A Christmas Carol Collection” will become a favorite family Christmas tradition every year!