At the CMT Music Awards this month, the least likely nominee turned into the night’s biggest story.
In a room full of country music royalty, the artist Jelly Roll — a 38-year-old face-tattooed former addict and drug dealer who got his start selling his own hip-hop mixtapes out of his car — took home the most trophies, beating superstars including Morgan Wallen, Kane Brown and Luke Combs. The crowd was on its feet as he performed his new single, “Need a Favor,” in a studded leather jacket, his gravelly voice backed by a full gospel choir.
“It was an absolute dream come true, the best-case scenario, and I’ve had a worst-case scenario life up to this point,” Jelly Roll said in a telephone interview the following week, excitedly recounting his interactions backstage with Shania Twain and Slash. “I spent my entire childhood feeling like I didn’t belong — in every situation, I felt like the uncomfortable fat kid. So that was like my high school prom and the graduation I never had, on national television.”
On June 2, Jelly Roll’s debut country album, “Whitsitt Chapel,” arrives, but it’s far from his first release. Since 2011, he has put out more than 20 albums, EPs and mixtapes, many of them independently released collaborations with other Southern white rappers like Lil’ Wyte and Haystak. His music has often addressed his criminal past and his journey to sobriety — what he calls “real music for real people with real problems.”
Jelly Roll (born Jason DeFord) grew up in Antioch, a culturally diverse working-class suburb south of downtown Nashville. His father was a meat salesman with a side hustle as a bookie, while his mother struggled with her mental health and addiction. He was first arrested when he was 14 and spent the next decade in and out of juvenile centers and prison for charges including aggravated robbery and possession with intent to sell.
Inspired by Southern rappers like Three 6 Mafia, UGK and 8ball & MJG, Jelly Roll started writing rhymes of his own, getting serious about pursuing music after learning that he had a daughter, now age 15. He began touring relentlessly and eventually racked up hundreds of millions of streams with virtually no mainstream visibility.
In the last few years, though, he has leaned further into a heartfelt country-soul/Southern-rock style. “The music started evolving as the man did,” he said. “The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve found my singing voice and my love for instrumentation.”
Though Jelly Roll had several previous singles that had been certified gold, the real acceleration came with his 2020 song “Save Me,” a bluesy ballad sung over fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Emotional and despairing (“I’m so damaged beyond repair/Life has shattered my hopes and my dreams”), it was written on a Sunday, recorded and filmed on Monday, posted to YouTube on Tuesday and immediately exploded, racking up more than 165 million views to date. He recut the song as a duet with the rising star Lainey Wilson for the new album.
In the last year, his bruising, fuzzed-out song “Dead Man Walking” went to No. 1 on rock radio while the mid-tempo “Son of a Sinner” topped the country radio chart, and Jelly Roll held the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s emerging artist chart for 25 straight weeks, the longest run in that ranking’s history. In December, about a year after headlining Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, he sold out all 17,000 or so seats at Bridgestone Arena there. The Bridgestone show is chronicled in a new documentary, “Jelly Roll: Save Me,” premiering on Hulu on May 30.
“Some traditional country music fans might be scratching their heads at his image and style of music,” Storme Warren, a host on SiriusXM’s The Highway channel, wrote in an email, “but I think they’ll come around when they realize he’s the real deal.”
“In my opinion, he’s as country as any other artist,” Warren continued. “His stories are real and relatable. He’s living proof that anything is possible.”
As Jelly Roll’s profile grows, he’s not slowing down his nonstop work habits. (“Drug dealers never take a day off,” he said in 2021, “and I wanted to apply that drive to music.”) This summer, he’ll be on the road with his Backroad Baptism Tour, as well as playing some shows with the country standard-bearer Eric Church. Several Nashville A-listers, including Miranda Lambert and Hardy, wrote with him for “Whitsitt Chapel.”
“I could tell right away we would be fast friends,” Lambert wrote in an email. “He is so genuine and kind. He is very strong in who he is and what he wants to say as an artist. I respect that so much.”
Jelly Roll, who notes that he’s “still trying to make fans when I’m at the gas station,” has long been studying the careers of country legends and what he can learn from their relationship to their fans. “They’ve stayed true to themselves,” he said. “You know who they are, and they know who they are and who they’re singing for.”
He wrote more than 80 songs for “Whitsitt Chapel” before landing on the album’s predominantly spiritual themes. “Everything was great, but it didn’t feel like it had a purpose,” he said. “I’m always diligent about the why, what’s the purpose? And if it’s just that it’s catchy or it’s easy to monetize, we don’t put that out.”
Then in one night, he came up with “Dancing With the Devil” and “Hungover in a Church Pew,” which became the record’s final tracks, and knew where he wanted the project to go. “Those two songs were talking to each other, dealing with the same story,” he said. “I was thinking about the choices I made, some horrible decisions. My music is a constant cry for help and growth — it tells a story of change, and I wasn’t ready for this before now.”
He admitted he went out drinking after the CMT awards show (he had announced those plans from the stage), but said he is “quite a few years removed from doing the drugs that were going to kill me,” explaining that “sobriety looks different on everybody.”
His focus is on the “therapeutic” role his music can play for people with addictions and on his work for at-risk youth in Nashville. He donated all the profits from the Bridgestone show and, working with the local nonprofit Impact Youth Outreach, built a recording studio inside Davidson County Juvenile Detention Center.
“That’s not even scratching the surface of my plan,” Jelly Roll said. “I’m going to build halfway houses and transitional centers — that’s my real heart.”
“I just never forget being that kid,” he continued. “Those years in juvenile were so formative, and it was so devastating for me to miss that time. On my 16th birthday, I didn’t get a car; I woke up incarcerated. I didn’t get my G.E.D. until I was 23 and in jail. I just missed so much of life. So I want to be remembered as a guy that did something for the kids in this town.”
After grinding for a dozen years only to finally find himself recognized as a “new artist,” Jelly Roll isn’t settling into a formula now. “Music is like human nature,” he said. “It evolves or dies. Artists should always be pushing the boundaries of what’s uncomfortable, and I plan to be doing that the rest of my career. That’s what I was thinking about when I was leaving the CMTs — now that I’ve gotten here, I deserve to stay.”
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