Gospel roots anchored Opry vocalist on road to Kentucky Music Hall of Fame
By John Herndon, KentuckySings.com
RENFRO VALLEY, Ky. — It didn’t take long for Norah Lee Allen’s father to see he had special talent in his family.
“My father was in a quartet. He could tell we were musically inclined, so he formed a trio and we traveled for around 17 years,” Mrs. Allen recalls. “We traveled around to seven or eight different states. We didn’t travel as much until I was a little older but we sang at churches, revivals, concerts and wherever we could.”
The Stuart Sisters, based in their hometown of Bowling Green, became one of the most popular regional gospel singing groups around during the 50s and 60s. They recorded their own EPs and grew to be as busy as they wanted to be.
Little did anyone know at the time that The Stuart Sisters would be the springboard for a long and recognizable career in country music as a background vocalist at the Grand Ole Opry. For that work, Norah Lee Allen is a member of the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022. She, along with the six other inductees, were so honored Friday night at Renfro Valley.
You probably haven’t seen Norah Lee Allen’s name on Opry headlines. But if you’ve ever been there or even watched on TV, you’ve undoubtedly seen and heard her onstage as one of the Opry’s background vocalists for over 40 years. It’s a career that doesn’t command the attention of the biggest names in music, but it’s essential and requires the unique ability to blend interchangeably almost on the fly.
As a backup vocalist, Norah Lee and her colleagues might be called upon to sing with artists as varied as Alan Jackson to Carrie Underwood to Brad Paisley to a rising star appearing as a guest. It’s a routine that is never the same three to five nights a week.
“A lot of days, it’s just that you get a chance to learn the song one time and then you go out there and do it … You have to know what you are doing,” Norah Lee says.
She traces the development of her skills back to those days traveling Kentucky and surrounding states with The Stuart Sisters. “I think the biggest thing, for me, and for other people in gospel, is learning harmony,” Norah Lee says. “I think, in gospel, you have a lot of three- and four-part harmonies and that prepares you for just about anything.”
Singing with The Stuart Sisters led Norah Lee to a stint with the Chuck Wagon Gang in 1968. She sang soprano for the legendary gospel group that was undergoing some changes following the death of Howard Gordon.
Norah Lee left the group after less than a year but, according to sghistory.com, returned to record the group’s “Old Fashioned Singing – 20 Greatest Hits” album in 1978.
Relocating to Nashville, Norah Lee took a job in the gospel music industry, working as a secretary and taking on roles as a backup or studio singer for multiple artists. It would prove to be more experience for the role for which she became synonymous.
While known as a powerful soprano, her range and versatility continued to expand. When asked about her role at the Opry, she chuckled and said, “I sing all the parts.”
It was also through gospel music, that Norah Lee Stuart met her future husband, Duane Allen, who was becoming known as the dynamic lead singer for The Oak Ridge Boys in the late ‘60s.
“My family was in gospel music and we were all friends,” she recalls. “Anytime they would come to our town or my area, my mother would cook. She was a big southern cook and they would come to our house and hang out. That’s how I met just about the entire group.”
Norah Lee and Duane were married Sept. 22, 1969.
At about the same time the Oak Ridge Boys were making the change from a cutting-edge southern gospel group to one at the top of country music, Norah Lee’s experience singing backup to all kinds of singers prompted a call from the Opry. She began singing backup on a part-time basis in 1975 and went to full-time status five years later.
It was a gig that would last more than 40 years.
Throughout her career, Norah Lee Allen was tasked with enhancing others. If you saw the Opry, you saw Norah Lee Allen. If you saw country videos, chances are you saw her there too.
In fact, when she performed at the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony Friday night, it was the first time we at KentuckySings.com had ever seen Norah Lee Allen with the spotlight on her. She performed with her daughter, Jamie Martin, and son, Dee Allen.
Throughout her career, she was always described as graceful, elegant and professional. And it was fitting that her children were on stage with her at the induction ceremony while her husband sat near the front taking it all in. You see, during the time the Oak Ridge Boys were rising to the top of country music, Duane was often on the road but Norah Lee was home somehow juggling her own career with Christian motherhood.
And she was on stage, but in the background when Little Jimmy Dickens invited the Oak Ridge Boys to become members of The Opry in 2011. “I knew about it a week or two before, but it had to be a secret,” she recalls, “but they had been on The Opry for years, even before me. They were guests, but that was a special time when they were invited.”
These days, Norah Lee Allen spends as much time as she can with her family. Son Dee is also a musician with the Nashville-based band, Tall Dark Stranger. Daughter Jamie and her husband, Paul Martin, lead their own family group, Rockland Road, who sang the National Anthem at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
“I see them almost every day,” she says of Rockland Road. “I see them often. Paul and Jamie are both very talented. Paul is one of the most talented musicians I have ever known. Their kids kind of come to it naturally. Paul was raised in music. I was raised in music. My husband was raised in music. It’s kind of a natural God-given thing.”
As always, Norah Lee Allen gives credit to God. From her own career to her family, she gives God the glory and tries to shine His light. And those deep roots in southern gospel still feed her soul.
“Oh yes. I still listen to southern gospel. That’s my favorite,” she says of the varying styles of Christian music. “There are always some things you like a little more than others. Southern gospel is what I prefer. I was raised on that and it’s what I prefer.”
Norah Lee says she’s also a fan of many other kinds of music. “I like some of most kinds of music. I especially like mid- to late-50s music. I suppose the era called ‘pop’ music.”
When she was inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, Norah Lee Allen was honored with legends from Bluegrass, Country and Blues. Previous inductees include some of the biggest names in Southern Gospel, Contemporary Christian, Pop and Rock.
Ironically, another member of the Class of 2022 is a friend who also made his career one of supporting other people, Opry steel guitarist Tommy White, a native of Louisville. “The word ‘honor’ is used a lot, but it is a huge honor,” Norah Lee says of going to the Hall of Fame. “And I get to go in with Tommy White. I have known Tommy for years. I don’t know all of the other ones but it is a huge honor.
“It’s not something you expect, but it’s a wonderful thing and I don’t think there are even words you can come up with.”
6 thoughts on “Spotlight finally shines on Norah Lee Allen”
I’m good friends with Phil Turner, we
Worked together for years. He talked about you many times Nora Lee.
Wonderful honor..how proud your parents would be! Your mom was my sweet friend and neighbor …love her.
GREAT ARTICLE ON YOUR HISTORIC CAREER, MISS NORAH LEE !!!!!!CONGRATS
Congratulations to Sweet Norah Lee Allen on this Induction. Well Deserved,
Willie and Sandi❤️❤️❤️
Grew up right down the road on Three Springs Road. Back in the day, knew Sandra, Lana, and Nora Lee. Remember hearing them sing. My parents were Harold and Dorothy Pearson and they had eight of us kids; we lived maybe a half mile down the road. So proud for Nora Lee.
So proud of you, what a legacy for your family. Uncle Nobel and Imay are so smiling in heaven. I wish I could have been there and heard Jamie and Dee sing with you. Continue to give God the glory. Best Wishes on your new journey.