Clay Cooper: 2023 Texas Country Music Hall of Famer
By Jeremy Hallock
Clay Cooper started his career at the Wylie Opry. Now he is in the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame alongside legends like Willie Nelson, Gene Autry, Waylon Jennings, and Bob Wills.
Cooper, along with the late K.T. Oslin, was inducted at the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame/Tex Ritter Museum in Carthage on Aug. 12.
“I did not see it coming at all,” Cooper said. “If you go down to the Hall of Fame in Texas and look around, it’s all my heroes, all these big names. I was honored and it was pretty overwhelming.”
Cooper has never had a hit record, but he has been performing for crowds since he was a teenager. It all started at the Wylie.
“I’d be a guest on some Saturday nights,” Cooper said. “We had a Wylie Opry kids band.”
This was back in 1984, when he was just 14. Joey Riley, another entertainer from Wylie who died of cancer in 2013 when he was just 43, was also in the band. Riley’s parents, George and Clara Riley, were the original owners of the Wylie Opry, which first opened in the warehouse district on Cooper Street before relocating to its current location at 111 North Ballard Avenue.
“My dad used to sing on Saturday nights too,” Cooper said. “Joey Riley was my best friend.”
Cooper and his late father, Jerry, helped the Riley’s remodel the original building before Wylie Opry opened in 1984. He remembers tearing the floors out with a crowbar.
LeGrant Gable, owner of the Wylie Opry since 2000, formerly with the Garland Police Department, remembers Joey and Clay rehearsing at the Wylie Opry until three or four in the morning.
“I still talk about Clay all the time,” Gable said. “I made a big deal about him being inducted into the Hall of Fame and what an honor it was for us. Every once in a while, I’ll send him a text, or he’ll send me one. I wish I could get him back in here to sing again.”
Cooper remembers Gable as “one cool cat.”
“LeGrant put his heart and soul into that little opry,” Cooper said. “I feel like he’s probably never made a whole lot of money doing it, it’s probably cost him money doing it. But he just loves country music so much. I remember back in the day, man, he would get off work at the police department and go to work at the Wylie Opry. He would sleep there most of the nights. He would bring a blanket and sleep in the sound booth.”
Within a couple years of starting his career at the Wylie Opry, Cooper joined the Texas Gold Minors, a popular country and Western group of young musicians from North Texas.
“There were eight of us in the band,” Cooper said. “I was the oldest but that was a smoking band. We started playing the White Elephant at the Stockyards and we were playing private parties and local fairs.”
When the group scored their own regular show in Branson, Cooper moved to Missouri on two days’ notice when he was just 16, and never looked back.
“There were a lot of stars playing Branson when I got here in ’86,” Cooper said. “Roy Clark, Ronnie Milsap and Charlie Daniels. But the heyday of Branson really kicked off in the early to mid ’90s. Branson started getting national publicity and it really boomed.”
Indeed, the “Branson Boom” was in full swing by 1995, when Live with Regis and Kathie Lee filmed a few episodes in the area. Guests on the show that week included Andy Williams, Charley Pride, Glen Campbell, Tony Orlando, Bobby Vinton and even actor Mel Gibson.
Cooper says he played over 500 times a year in Branson in various shows from 1990 to 2003. By 2006 he started his own show, Clay Cooper’s Country Express, initially doing morning shows at rented theaters.
“We started small, started in the morning,” Cooper said. “But we built it up and started doing nights.”
On the main strip of Branson, he opened the Clay Cooper Theatre in 2009 in a 1,200-seat building he purchased from Jimmy Osmond. He currently performs at his theater about twenty times a week in the mornings, afternoons and evenings. Cooper also regularly books headliners like Gene Watson, Terry Bradshaw and Ricky Skaggs.
Now one of the most popular shows in Branson, his variety production show includes his wife, Tina, and his two sons along with eleven dancers, a six-piece band, a trio of singers and a comedian. The show mainly features old and new country music, along with rock and gospel songs.
Cooper is now a politician too. He is currently in his second term as alderman in Branson. He is also deputy mayor.
“If the mayor dies, I am the man,” said Cooper, who was first elected to the Branson Board of Aldermen in April of 2021. “And I hope he doesn’t.”
He never planned to get involved with politics, but the pandemic changed that three years ago.
“When all this COVID stuff hit with all the mandates I got really angry,” Cooper said. “I jumped in there and just wanted to standup for the people. I never had a problem with people wearing masks, I just didn’t like people telling me I had to wear one.”
The Board of Aldermen voted to repeal the Branson mask mandate a week after Cooper was elected.
“With me getting in there and the new mayor, we had enough votes to get it done,” Cooper said. “I ran my whole campaign on removing the mask mandate.”
At 53, Cooper has had a unique and varied career.
“I have a huge following even though I’m not on the road,” Cooper said. “All the people on the road are coming to me. I’ve played to millions of people over the years.”
And he still has fans in Wylie. Allan Stroud, Senior Associate Pastor at The Cross Church, has known Cooper since he was a child. He and the senior adult ministry take yearly trips to Branson to see Cooper perform.
“We take two buses,” Stroud said. “Anywhere from 90 to 100 people. It’s amazing the talent he has. He’s been doing it for so many years that is has become so easy for him. I think one of the reasons he is so successful is that he makes everyone feel like he’s known them forever. He goes out into the audience and jokes with people. He remembers people’s names. People love him for that. He puts on a wonderful show and engages the people in a way that I have never seen before.”