Lorraine Jordan

Bluegrass daughter born in eastern North Carolina

Lorraine Jordan: Bluegrass daughter born in eastern North Carolina

Lorraine Jordan walks out on stage, fronting a band of men as if headed to battle, chin held high with an air of quiet confidence as no-nonsense as her hard-driving bluegrass mandolin licks. With four #1 songs on the bluegrass charts to her credit, possibly the 5th any day now, she has a reason to be self-assured. The set begins with the high lonesome sentiment bluegrass is known for, with songs like “Get me home to Mama,” “Homesick for the Blue Ridge” and “I know what it means to be lonesome.”

The songs are delivered in rapid fire. Then she stops to connect with the audience and says, “Wherever we go play across the country, we always tell them we’re from the greatest state–North Carolina.”

She scans the audience at the Malpass Brothers Bluegrass and Country Music Festival at the Denton Farmpark and spots familiar faces from eastern North Carolina. The venue is an outdoor, open-air structure, like an old-fashioned camp meeting. And to see Jordan’s expression, it’s like she’s sitting at the table of a family reunion, and it sparks a memory.: “Dolly Parton’s nephew came to town and killed a black bear, 880 pounds it was, and set a world record. Right there in Vanceboro.”

She explains, “I was born in Greenville at the hospital, raised in Vanceboro.” 

Her 92-year-old father, Royce Jordan, travels with her working the merchandise table and adds pertinent details: That she was born in the hospital on West 5th Street, the red brick building that holds Social Services and other county departments now. And that he graduated from ECTC [East Carolina Teacher’s College)] before the university was renamed, and that his wife, Lorraine’s mother, was from the Bells Fork area.

“I was going to be a lawyer,” he remembers. “I had a scholarship to Tulane, but some 5 foot 4 brown-eyed girl came in the picture.” He smiles, pauses, and adds, “We stayed married 66 years.”

Lorraine graduated from West Craven High School, where she played in concert band. 

“I played the stand-up bass and the electric bass,” she remembers. “I had a good band teacher. He really took an interest in the fact that I could play by ear. They’d be playing a song, and everybody’s got their sheet music in front of them. And I’d be playing it by ear and going along with them. One day there was a song where it had a stop in it for the bass and I’m still going. And he said ‘Whoa whoa who–there was a stop there, bass player and drummer.’ And the drummer said, ‘I stopped.’  And he said, ‘The bass didn’t stop. Didn’t you see it on the sheet?’ I turned my stand around and said, ‘What sheet?’”

“And he just thought it was such an amazing thing that I could play anything he could play without a note. And he said it was really a gift and he took an interest in me, started working with me on the bass and all that.”

And that’s when she got noticed by a local bluegrass band in Vanceboro, with Theodore and Hattie Morris. Their daughter, Hilda Wetherington, was the familiar face Jordan spotted in the audience at the festival. [Watch the video for Jordan’s song “Back to My Roots,” which features scenes from her hometown of Vanceboro.]

Hattie & Theodore Morris of Vanceboro were Lorraine’s early bluegrass mentors.

“They asked me if I would like to come play bass with them in bluegrass,” Jordan remembers. “I knew bluegrass, but I was more into ’70s music–Creedence Clearwater Revival stuff. But I said I’d give it a try, and I did. We got together every Saturday at his house and drank little Cokes and played bluegrass music.”

Then she went to East Carolina University, where one of the girls she roomed with played banjo. 

I said, ‘Wow you play banjo, I play bass and a little guitar.’ And she said, ‘We should get a band together.’”

They thought it would be cool to have an all-girl band, so they found a fiddle player in the orchestra, and a girl who could play the guitar and sang like Emmylou Harris. Then they found a girl who had played the bass with bluegrass before.

“I thought, ‘Who can we find to play mandolin?’ And they said ‘How ‘bout you?’ And I said, ‘Me? Well I’ll give it a try,’”Jordan remembers. 

“I got to be a really big fan of the band Seldom Scene and there was a fellow in that band, John Duffey, who played mandolin. I went and got me a cheap little mandolin in Greenville at a pawn shop, and began working towards it, and I thought, ‘I’m starting to like this. You don’t have to carry around a big bass and a big amp. I can put this on my motorcycle, and I loved the way Seldom Scene utilized the mandolin. So I became a mandolin player.”

While in college Jordan says she played in several bands, and eventually got a call from a band in Fuquay-Varina, Bluegrass 78, and they were looking for a mandolin player. 

“So I moved up this way and played with Bluegrass 78,” she says. “We went a lot of places, and I fell in love with it and got to know a lot of people, and decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

But it was a circuitous route that led her to where she is today.

“The guy that’s the lead singer in my band now, he and I, when we were like 17 or 18 years old, formed our own band and went to the state fair and won the contest there. We decided we must be doing pretty good to have taken the state fair blue ribbon home. So when Bluegrass 78 ended, we got a band together, and that led to me playing with a lot of people.”

“I sat in with the New Coon Creek Girls some–Ramona Church was the banjo player, fastest banjo player alive. She got signed with Pinecastle Records, which is the record label I’m on now. And she went out there and played one year, made one album, and said it won’t for her–she was going back to the mountains.”

“So she moved back and Pinecastle said, ‘Your band, your contract. Get it going. So I called it Carolina Road for a long time–I put different people together. Actually hired another banjo player, Gena Britt, to start off. After that, Mr. Tom T. and Dixie Hall signed me to their record label, Blue Circle Records. They said you need to put your name in front of this band to give it leverage.” Thus Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road was born. 

Somewhere in all that flurry of music industry, Jordan taught school as a driver’s education teacher. 

“When they took driver’s education out of the school system, I opened up Jordan Driving School,” she says. “It’s one of the largest driving schools in the United States right now. We contract with Wake and Mecklenburg County. That was something I was surprised to get into–I got into the business world, but it’s worked out pretty well for me. Garner’s my home now. My friends and family are there. My church is there.”

Jordan’s husband passed away this year. She doesn’t see herself leaving Garner. It’s there where she has her coffeehouse, Lorraine’s Coffeehouse and Cafe, which is also a music venue: “Someone asked me, ‘What do you see yourself doing in 5 to 10 years?’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you exactly what I’m going to do. I’ve got it all figured out. I’m in the house I’m going to be in the rest of my life. I’m going to buy me a Maltese dog, and I’m going to walk my dog in my neighborhood. And on nights we have music at the coffeehouse, I’m going to go up there and enjoy the music, and participate if I still can. I have traveled and I’ve done all that. I’m ready to get me that little dog and stay right home.”

After the Malpass Brothers festival, Jordan’s band was headed to Nashville to play at the Station Inn and then on to Branson. The #1 hits they’ve charted are “True Grass,” “Bill Monroe’s Old Mandolin,” “That’s Kentucky,” and “Melinda.” They currently have a song moving up the charts called “A Little Bit of Bluegrass will Chase Your Blues Away.”

She explains: “The reason we decided to do that song and picked it as our single is because everybody was inside during COVID, we’ve had terrorism, we’ve had hurricanes, we’ve had storms, we’ve had the floodings. We thought, you know what? Everybody’s going through so much, let’s give them an up-tempo song and let’s tell them to turn on that radio and listen to bluegrass and maybe everything will get all right.”

For Mother’s Day she released a song she co-wrote with Donna Ulisse called “Mama’s Cross.” Jordan lost her mother in 2019 and Ulisse’s mother passed earlier this year.

Jordan hosts popular bluegrass festivals, Bluegrass Christmas in the Smokies, Nov 16-18, 2023 in Gatlinburg, TN and Bluegrass in the Blue Ridge, held the second weekend of April. On Father’s Day weekend, the band hosts the Willow Oak Music Park Bluegrass Festival in Roxboro, NC.

Every Friday night Lorraine’s coffee house in Garner has bluegrass at 7:30 p.m. Watch their shows on Facebook.

Western North Carolina and the Appalachians might have a reputation for nurturing bluegrass, but eastern North Carolina can rightly say, “A little bit of bluegrass with that barbecue and Pepsi-Cola will chase your blues away.”

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Originally published in the Daily Reflector May 27, 2023.

Carolina Road performs in Kenansville.