Country music has its next big thing. Literally. He goes by the name of Jelly Roll. The corpulent crooner got his start on the hip-hop circuit. He is an ex-convict, sports multiple face tattoos and is revolutionizing the creative landscape of Music City.
Born Jason Bradley DeFord, the thickset singer/songwriter is a weathered soul with a voice to match. It seems perfectly tuned for country music as opposed to rap, which served as his initial genre. Ideologically DeFord, 38, brings to mind Merle Haggard. The Hag and Jelly Roll exude an almost constant search for salvation and the need to atone. This is probably because both men spent considerable time on the wrong side of a prison cell.
It turns out Music City’s fastest rising star is a native son. DeFord, who was dubbed “Jelly Roll” by momma at an early age, was born in Nashville in December of 1984. South Nashville to be exact, in the middle/lower class community of Antioch, Tennessee. Drugs and violence were commonplace. It was a tumultuous environment, but young Jason was influenced by his father, whom he idolized. “He ran a meat company called ‘DeFord Wholesale Meats’. He also booked bets on the side, so he taught me about that nonstop hustle”, says Jelly.
But DeFord’s formative years were anything but idyllic. He has made no secret that growing up, his mother “struggled with mental health and addictions”. At the age of fourteen, as Jelly states, “I made a decision that would spin the next twelve years of my life. What we call the revolving door of the judicial system”. Over the next dozen years, DeFord spent about nine behind bars.
Everything changed for Jelly in May of 2008. It was just another day in stir for DeFord when he received a knock on his cell door. It was a guard who told the felon he was a new father. (During a brief stint of freedom, the previous year, Jelly had impregnated a young woman). The news instantly changed the inmate’s life. “My daughter was born. That was my Saul to Paul moment”, related DeFord. He transferred to the education unit, earned his GED, and vowed to be the best dad he could be.
Like Haggard, Jelly Roll left prison with a plan. “I was gonna put every piece of energy I had into music. I came home, and we started selling CDs off of spindles. Going to all the nightclubs around town and just kept building it”, related Jelly. As a Nashville native, DeFord eventually gravitated toward Music City’s hallmark sound. “I guess I started in hip-hop. Started to kind of get more soulful with the rock and southern rock influences into country”.
After years of refining his craft and nonstop hustle, Jelly gained a notable following. He released a multitude of mixtapes including collaborations with fellow Dixieland rappers Struggle Jennings, Lil Wyte, and Tech N9ne. Slowly however, the singer’s style began to feel a bit more down home. The single “Save Me”, recorded in the midst of the Covid pandemic, is a true revelation.
Cut to September 2021, DeFord releases his first album on a major label. Ballads of the Broken is essentially a rock/hip-hop album. “Dead Man Walking” was the first single released and reached #1 on the US Mainstream Rock chart. But the album also includes a song called “Son of a Sinner”. It is here where Jelly Roll’s true assimilation into country music begins.
The song was born out of Jelly’s real-life struggles. He describes it as “haunting”, but adds, “this song connects with everybody. It’s a soul-toucher”. Co-written with David Ray Stevens and Ernest Keith Smith, “Son of a Sinner” was DeFord’s first release to country radio. It went to #1 in January of 2023 on the Country Airplay chart. Later that year, the song also won three awards at the CMT Music Awards including Male Video of the Year.
The embracement of Jelly Roll by the country community was almost immediate. He made his Grand Ole Opry debut on November 9, 2021, and has been invited back on several rollicking occasions. When asked why his music resonates so much with country music fans Jelly says, “I think they felt a real authenticity from it. I think the people knew it wasn’t a cash grab”. Indeed. The Nashville kid has come full circle.
Jelly Roll released the album Whitsitt Chapel in June of 2023. It is the artist’s first official country music album, and the reception has been extraordinary. Whitsitt Chapel made it to #2 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and topped both the Billboard Top Rock Albums and Top Independent Albums. The lead single off the album, “Need a Favor”, hit #1 on Billboard’s US Country Airplay and Hot Rock & Alternative Songs. Jelly’s iconic performance of “Need a Favor” at the 2023 CMT Music Awards both converted skeptics and silenced critics.
DeFord is a walking miracle. Based on the odds, Jelly should be dead, not a country music superstar. The beautiful thing is, he knows it. As a result, the singer is determined to make a difference now that he can. On December 9, 2022, Jelly performed at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena to a sold-out crowd of more than 15,000. He donated all the proceeds that night, as well as matching the amount in a personal donation. The bestowment went to “Impact Youth Outreach, to build a state-of-the-art recording studio at Davidson County Juvenile Detention Center in Nashville — the same place he was once incarcerated”. That’s the man that former inmate Jason DeFord has become.
Jelly has also found the stable family life he lacked growing up. In 2016, DeFord married former escort and entrepreneur Bunnie XO whom he calls “a beacon of change in my life.” And though his father has passed, Jelly has been able to give his mother a better life, providing her with a full-time nurse. As for the little girl that gave him a reason to go straight, she is now 15 and an aspiring musician herself. The singer and his wife have had full custody of her for nine years.
Call him Jelly because he is on a roll! DeFord has transformed himself from an underground regional success to one of the hottest acts performing today. His latest album, Whitsitt Chapel, is one of the finest releases of the year and is poised for big things come award season. Jelly is also headlining a 44-date arena tour, appropriately called the Backroad Baptism Tour.
The man they call Jelly is a hit with country fans because he exudes sincerity. He doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not and they appreciate that. “For better or for worse, I’m just me” the singer says. “I know I’m not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. I’m a strong shot of whiskey, I get that”. He is no doubt a polarizing figure, but people cannot get enough of him. Earlier this year, DeFord was even the subject of his own documentary. The Hulu special doc, Jelly Roll: Save Me, has received a strong reaction due to its raw earnestness.
Jelly Roll is nothing if not genuine. He sums it up like this, “I say it’s real music for real people with real problems. That’s what I do. It makes songwriting so much easier for me than everybody else in town. They’re searching for a hit and I’m just searching to touch somebody’s soul”. One thing is for certain, the future of country music is in good hands, even if it looks a bit untraditional. For now, Jelly Roll is making great music and helping people and says he has no plans to quit doing what he’s doing.