In the Spring of 2020, amidst the initial chaos of the Covid craze, hip-hop performer Jelly Roll had an epiphany. When every other act in Music City decided to close up shop, he opted to get to work. Out of those sessions came a heartfelt ballad that completely changed the trajectory of his career. Jelly Roll is now one of the most popular country music artists in the world. It all started with a song called “Save Me”.
Nashville native Jason DeFord, known professionally as Jelly Roll, is what they call in the music business a late bloomer. He is also a genuine American success story. After a troubled youth and several stints in prison, DeFord decided to pursue his passion for music with reckless abandon. After years of underground success on the rap circuit, “Save Me” opened the door to what feels like his true audience. At the age of thirty-nine, Jelly won New Artist of the Year at the 2023 Country Music Association Awards.
“Save Me” came from “a really dark space”, Jelly says. “It’s still really hard to sing”. Written with friend and frequent collaborator David Ray, the song was manifested in a beautiful creative burst. DeFord remembers, “We wrote ‘Save Me’ on a Saturday, recorded it Sunday, shot the video Monday, put it out Tuesday. That’s how that worked. Didn’t think twice about it”.
Jelly released the video for “Save Me” on June 16, 2020. His description reads, “This one is a little bit of a curveball for me. I don’t usually do these stripped-down acoustic videos, but writing this song made me feel something. I felt y’all needed some insight into the more vulnerable side of the music business”.
“Save Me” appears on Jelly Roll’s 2020 studio album Self Medicated. The reception was less than overwhelming. The next year, however, Jelly’s album Ballads of the Broken represented a major breakthrough. The project includes a song called “Son of a Sinner”. It is here where Jelly Roll’s true assimilation into country music begins. “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.
Jason DeFord was now officially Jelly Roll, Country Music Star. The decision was them made to give his new fans what they wanted. In June of 2023, Jelly released Whitsitt Chapel, his first honest to goodness country album. To put it mildly, it has been a tremendous success. 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 Whitsitt Chapel, “Need a Favor”, hit #1 on Billboard’s US Country Airplay and Hot Rock & Alternative Songs. The second single from the album was a reissue of a previously released song, reworked with the hottest name in country music. Released on May 12, 2023 as a duet, “Save Me” features Jelly alongside Louisianna powerhouse Lainey Wilson. The finished product is staggering. Wilson, who was named 2023 CMA Entertainer of the Year, adds a devastating depth to an already powerful song.
In the late winter of 2023, the remixed version of “Save Me” made it to the top of the Billboard Country Airplay Chart. The tune reached #1 on the Canadian Hot 100 as well. It also garnered nominations for DeFord and Wilson for Musical Event of the Year at the 2023 CMA Awards. The nomination represented one of five nods for Jelly Roll. The only artist to receive more CMA nominations was Lainey Wilson with nine.
The Grammys, however, are a different animal. Regarded as the pinnacle of musical accomplishment, the Grammy Awards have been recognizing the industry’s best since 1958. Jelly and Lainey are nominated for two awards each at the 2024 Grammys. DeFord secured a nomination in the Best New Artist category while Wilson scored a nod for Best Country Album. In addition, Jelly Roll and Lainey Wilson are nominated for Best Country Duo/Group Performance for “Save Me”. Jelly discusses his Grammy nominated song and his dazzling duet partner.
More than just a Rotund Rapper
“For lack of a better word, ‘Save Me’ went viral. It was undeniable. I had built a pretty good career. Keep in mind, I had a billion views on my YouTube show. But I couldn’t get, I was missing that one song that made people go ‘Oh, OK, this guy can do it all.’ I think ‘Save Me’ was that.”
“I didn’t care If it popped or flopped”
“There was something about it that just stirred my spirit…I have songs that mean a lot to me that I’ll never play anybody. Ever. They mean that much to me. And ‘Save Me’ was one of those songs that could have been that song, but it meant even more to me. It was like, ‘no, this one needs to go out’. I loved it so much; I didn’t care what it did. If it popped or flopped”.
Working with Wilson
“Lainey’s like a sister. I think she’s got one of the best voices in country music, and we’re already friends so it was just such an easy collab. Now, admittedly, what I didn’t think about at the exact time…‘Man, wouldn’t this be cool to do a real duet?’ But I didn’t realize how much of an impact the song was going to have on me…When I heard it from the perspective of a woman.”
“That’s who Lainey Wilson is”
“I’m sure there was somebody in her camp going, ‘hold on, we don’t need another duet right now’. And Lainey was just like, ‘No, I’m doing it. She had a thousand reasons not to do it and one reason to do it, and that was liking me…And she picked the one over the thousand. That’s who Lainey Wilson is”.
Jelly says that when he and Wilson get to perform “Save Me” together, it’s “electric”. He adds, “When we look each other in the eye on that ‘all of this drinking’ part, man, I see her soul. I see every painful thing she’s been through in her life and her eyes at that moment. It’s insane”. In 2023 at the 58th Academy of Country Music Awards, the pair put together a live performance for the ages.
“Touches the Soul”
“This is why I write the music I write…When people come up to you and say, ‘We played “Save Me” at my cousin’s funeral that overdosed and it’s now his mother’s favorite song and the way she copes with it…That is what this shit’s about…. That’s the shit that touches the soul”.
In a 2022 interview, Jelly Roll was asked what was responsible for catapulting his career. Without hesitation, the rap/country crossover phenomenon answered, “Save Me”. The tune represents a tangible musical evolution. “Everything I did was like a step on the ladder. ‘Save Me’ was like skipping ten steps on the ladder”, says the singer. Watch Jelly and Lainey vie for Grammy glory on Sunday, February 4th.
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