The face of country music is changing…and it has tattoos on it. His name is Jelly Roll, and he is taking the genre by storm. Born Jason DeFord in 1984, the Nashville native cut his teeth on the hip-hop circuit before earnestly pursuing the sound synonymous with Music City. The reception from country music has been nothing short of remarkable.
Jelly’s is a genuine success story, but not an overnight one. As a teen and into his twenties, DeFord served nearly nine years in prison over a twelve-year period. His battles with addiction have been well documented while he continues to grapple with mental health issues. But his faith in the healing power of music has remained constant. It has finally united him with his perfect audience.
In June of 2023, Jelly Roll released the album Whitsitt Chapel. It is the artist’s first official country music album, making it to #2 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It also topped both the Billboard Top Rock Albums and Top Independent Albums. The album’s lead single, “Need a Favor”, hit #1 on Billboard’s US Country Airplay and Hot Rock & Alternative Songs. The ex-convict with the face tats has been embraced by the country community like few new artists in recent memory.
2023 has been a career year for Jelly culminating in his first Country Music Association Award recognition. The rotund troubadour scored five nods in total including male vocalist of the year and new artist of the year. Only Lainey Wilson has more nominations, with nine. “Everything about this is unreal…This is a win for all the underdogs and forgotten”, says DeFord. The former addict and felon has come so far in such a short period of time. His impact is real, but so is his struggle. Jelly Roll opens up about salvation and stardom.
“Before the music”
“Jelly before the music was a scumbag. I was a horrible, horrible human. I was a less than desirable human. And I think that’s why I have such a heart for service now to help people. Because I was a taker for so long, that I wanted to be a giver for the rest of my life”.
“My Damascus Road experience”
“At the age of fourteen I made a decision that would spin the next twelve years of my life in what we call the revolving door of the judicial system. I’m not proud of this part of my story but it took up so much of my story that I have to speak on it. I probably did nine out of those twelve years in jail. Meaning nine in, the other three out just in rotational form. One of those times I was out, I had got a young woman pregnant, and this was my Damascus Road experience”.
“Saul to Paul moment”
“On May 22 of 2008 I was at the Corrections Corporation of America in South Nashville. I was in cell 223 and I have been in a thousand cells, but I remember this one for this reason. They knocked on that cell door and told me I had had a daughter. My daughter was born. That was my Saul to Paul moment. It was like, ‘I’m gonna go home and do anything I can not to risk my freedom to provide for this child. I had a good father. I want to be a good father’. And I did”.
“I’m a Strong Shot of Whiskey”
“For better or for worse, I’m just me. I know I’m not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. I’m a strong shot of whiskey, I get that”. Earlier this year, DeFord was the subject of his own documentary. The Hulu special doc, Jelly Roll: Save Me, has received a strong reaction due to its raw sincerity.
“Everything in my life has changed”
“I don’t even know where to start. The best way for me to describe it… In March of 2021, the first show I had on my books that year was at an 800-person club in Buffalo, New York. Sixteen months later the fifth stop of my tour is in Buffalo, New York – 23,000 tickets. Insane. So, you can probably imagine everything in my life has changed so dramatically”.
“Country fans are loyal to the core”
“What a difference a year can make when country radio gets behind you. Country fans are loyal to the core. Once country radio takes that thing to #1, and it connects, it’s not a soft hit. It’s life-changing in every way it could possibly be…They’ve just loved me! It’s just been awesome!”
“The Coolest Thing Ever”
“All you want to do is say ‘what’s up’ and take a picture? It’s like, ‘who the fuck would I be not to take that picture’? It doesn’t bother me at all. I think it’s the coolest thing ever. And before, nobody wanted a picture. I wasn’t very approachable…I spent so many years not wanted that being wanted is incredible”.
“Need a Favor”
Jelly speaks about his #1 hit “Need a Favor”, which is nominated for 2023 CMA Single of the year. “I thought about praise music and church music and wondered what does that sound like for someone like me. I made an early decision on connecting, not entertaining. And to me, ‘Need A Favor’ is a great connection.” The video for “Need a Favor”, directed by Patrick Tohill, is also nominated for 2023 CMA Music video of the year.
“I Represent Overcoming”
“I’m surprised I didn’t get killed to be honest…I represent overcoming. I represent the guy who wasn’t supposed to make it, making it. I think that’s how we all feel sitting at home…that there is a glimmer of hope when a guy like me makes it through the cracks”.
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