How Jelly Roll Rolled Past Skeptics to Score a Huge Radio Hit
You may not have noticed, but Jelly Roll doesn't look like anyone else on country radio. Should that matter? No, but historically, has it mattered?
There's an important, ongoing conversation happening right now about diversity in the format, and while change is slow and debatable, it's pretty clear that for decades, clean cut, white males have had the easiest time notching radio hits. Artists from other genres inspire a related, but separate kind of skepticism in decision makers. With hits in rock and hip-hop before "Son of a Sinner" was released to radio, Jelly Roll checked that box, too.
The reflective rock ballad is nearing the No. 1 spot on country airplay charts this week, in part because everything Jelly Roll represents is relatable. He's raw, honest and accessible. His songs tell his truth, and dang it if that's not what a good country song is supposed to do.
"They were in need of some country that wasn't, you know, truck-driven or hunting-driven, you know what I mean?"
"I think the people knew it wasn't a cash grab," he says, talking to Taste of Country Nights. "Like traditionally, it's old rock dudes. The band broke up and it's like, 'All right, let me come —' you know what I mean? For me, it's like no, this is a homegrown story, and this is a homegrown kid."
"I think to some degree they were like, 'He deserves to tell his story.'"
Who Is Jelly Roll?
Jelly Roll's real name is Jason DeFord. Prior to committing fully to country music, he thrived in underground rap and hip-hop, collaborating with artists including Lil Wyte, Tech N9ne, Struggle Jennings, DJ Paul and more. Around 2017, his music began to turn toward his country influences with the first of a series of Waylon & Willie albums (with Struggle Jennings). He released four of those before dropping Ballads of the Broken, an album on BBR Music Group (Jason Aldean’s label) in 2021.
Personally, the Antioch, Tenn., native grew up — as Brantley Gilbert would tell ToC — on the streets, surrounded by violence and addiction. As a teenager, the 38-year-old singer spent time in jail for various things, including a longer sentence on aggravated assault and possession with intent to sell charges (per CMT). He'll speak candidly about those experiences and uses his success after jail to inspire others charged with crimes as a teenager.
This fall, he gave $250,000 to the Davidson County Juvenile Detention Center in Nashville to build a recording studio for music programs for incarcerated youth.
On a personal level, he married podcaster Bunnie DeFord on Aug. 31, 2016, and together they raise his teenage daughter, Bailee.
So, he's a family man who brings a different set of experiences. That's another part of why Jelly Roll feels he was able to slip by pearl-clutchers.
"They were in need of some country that wasn't, you know, truck-driven or hunting-driven, you know what I mean?" he shares. "Nothing against those two things, those are my favorite songs. I enjoy both. But I think I brought that to the table too. It was, 'OK, we know we're going to get a little something left of center from Jelly.'"
For years, being a home-grown boy hurt, he adds. Georgia ruled until just recently, but beginning with Morgan Wallen, Tennessee-raised singers started to push back the peaches. "The explosion of Ernest, Conner Smith, Chris Young, Morgan Wallen ... Dustin Lynch is from Tullahoma. You got all these guys that are turning into big songwriters and they're all Tennessee boys, it definitely didn't hurt to be part."
On Friday (Dec. 9), Jelly Roll will play the big stage in his hometown for the first time. Along with Parmalee and some surprise guests, he'll take the stage at Bridgestone Arena. That's a sign that the most important tastemakers of all have accepted him: the fans.