As a true country music fan, you almost want to like Jelly Roll. You almost want to accept him into the country music fold, despite his history with rap, despite the face tattoos and being a convicted felon and all of that, and even though his music remains much more rap, rock, and pop as opposed to country. Because at the heart of Jelly Roll’s story is a message of redemption, and it’s one that’s told in part through the vehicle of country music helping to facilitate his redemption story.
And Jelly Roll’s songs—despite still not being especially country—are so much better than what have come before him in the space where country and hip-hop collide. “Son of a Sinner” on the otherwise rap rock album Ballads of the Broken (2021) is the song that opened Jelly Roll up to the country market, and it’s not a bad song at all. Neither is “Need a Favor” and a few other songs from Jelly Roll’s “country” (in quotations) debut, Whitsitt Chapel.
But make no mistake about it. Jelly Roll is not a country artist. The music he makes is not country music, with some minor exceptions. And not to be pedantic or arrogant about it, but this is pretty inarguable, and empirically true from a technical, sonic standpoint. And it doesn’t matter how much you want Jelly Roll to be country, or how much you want the music he makes to be considered country. It’s just not.
Country rap is nothing new, despite its proponents perpetually characterizing it as being on the cutting edge of country’s evolution. Rap celebrated it’s 50-year anniversary in August of this year. Country artists have been experimenting with integrating rap elements into the music for over 40 years. Jason Aldean had the biggest song in popular country music a dozen years ago with the country rap track “Dirt Road Anthem.” You’re constantly being gaslighted about how this is something new, creative, innovative, and boundary pushing in the country space. It’s not. In 2023, it’s passé.
The trouble with country rap is not necessarily that it’s always terrible on its face. It’s that the end results are almost always trite and derivative because the point of country rap is commonly to cast the widest net of appeal. Country rap was one of the elemental building blocks of Bro-Country. And though nobody advocating for country rap will ever acknowledge this, country rap is also where you will find the most open and overt elements of racism anywhere in the country music sphere—however ironic that might be.
But that doesn’t mean creativity can’t reside in the country rap space. For years, performers like Yelawolf, Struggle Jennings, and yes, Jelly Roll to some extent, have proven country rap can be creatively lucrative, at least at times. What they do is far beyond Florida Georgia Line or Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” which found their popularity through appealing to the widest possible audience and the least common denominator. Those versions of country rap were pure commercial product, and derivative tripe.
But now Jelly Roll wants to be part of mainstream country, and that changes the rules of engagement. Yelawolf appears on Jelly Roll’s new album Whitsitt Chapel, and Yelawolf said it best in 2015 when he derided the mixing of mainstream country with arena rap. Yelawolf said in part,
“I feel somewhat responsible to be in Nashville because I know that arena rap, and the little bits of meshing up country music with hip-hop has now made its way up to mainstream country. Country music artists talking about, ‘I’m in VIP. Shake it for me.’ Shit like that, it’s bad man.”
When Jelly Roll first started making his move into country, Saving Country Music didn’t put up a stop sign and protest. In fact in March of this year, an article titled “How Country Beat Back Hip-Hop in Mainstream Country” was published, highlighting the career track of former country rap artist Ernest, as well as quotes from Jelly Roll ahead of what was supposed to be his “country” album debut where he spoke about how he was using his move to country as a reformative aspect in his life, while promising the debut would be a “super country record.”
Here’s the quote in full from an Apple Radio interview,
The evolution that’s happened with my music was only a reflection of the evolution that happened as a man. Right? The music just evolved because the man evolved. This was just the music just followed my heart. It followed my spirit. I’m not that kid anymore. I was tearing my community apart and making CDs bragging about it. Ignorantly. In my defense, I didn’t have knowledge that I have now, you know. But there was no glory in that. I started singing more and getting more soulful and more in touch with the kind of music that I knew was important, which was the music that helped people. Like music had helped me whenever I was young. It just kind of followed that way.
Now, I still got hip hop elements in everything I do. I have a hip-hop element on my debut country album that’s coming out this summer and I have a hip-hop feature on it, but it’s still super country record. But my heart is different, man. My heart is to help. It’s not even about rap itself, it’s about the culture that I came from in the streets and just how misguided they are. Just how obstructive of a view we have when we were in that situation. It’s sad. I only see it now, because I’m out of it. You never see it when you’re in it. I only got above, got the 30,000 foot view and seen it. It’s like, “Man, I just want to make music that helps, the music that heals. I just want to try to do things to help the community that I’m from.”
But the problem is that when Whitsitt Chapel arrived in June, it didn’t have just one “hip-hop element” on it, and another “hip-hop feature.” If anything, it had only one or two country elements, and one or two country features. More than anything, it’s a pop record, which just like Yelawolf said back in 2015, is what you get when you try and mix mainstream country with commercial hip-hop.
But even then, Whitsitt Chapel wasn’t seen as problematic enough to openly criticize. There is music that is way worse than whatever Jelly Roll is doing in country, and so much better stuff to focus on than wasting breath about Whitsitt Chapel.
Even when Jelly Roll walked away recently with the CMA’s New Artist of the Year award over two very important artists in Zach Bryan and Parker McCollum, as well as two very important women surging in the mainstream space in Megan Moroney and Hailey Whitters, not a discouraging word was said about Jelly Roll. There were bigger fish to fry.
But in a recent extended interview on The New York Times‘ “Popcast” with Jon Caramanica, Jelly Roll decided to twist off on the folks that dare to say he’s not country while making some rather absurd statements about what country is, with the most quotable portion of the interview capturing Jelly Roll saying about trying to prove his country bona fides, “What do y’all want me to do, fuck a goat?”
Jelly Roll says later in the interview, “I don’t know how more country I could be … They said that about Garth Brooks and George Strait.”
For the record, nobody has ever said George Strait isn’t country. Ever. And by asserting such, you’re proving just how uninformed you are about what country music actually is.
As the interview continues, Jelly Roll commences naming off distinctly non-country performers and songs that were released into the country space, and then using them to justify how “country” he is. Jelly Roll states,
Let’s talk about country for a second … my love for country music. It’s my unbelievable favorite. And I can tell you little markers that have happened in the last 20 years that have let me know that I might be here one day. Obviously, all the early Aldean stuff, especially ‘Dirt Road Anthem.’ When there was a guy full blown rapping on country radio, I remember being like, ‘This has really got a chance.’ But when I heard the 808 (drum machine) from [Sam Hunt’s] “Break Up in a Small Town” on the Big 98 in Nashville at the time, and that was an undeniable Three 6 Mafia-esque 808. And that whole Sam Hunt project…
For context, Sam Hunt’s two albums Montevallo (2014) and Southside (2020) were both produced by Zach Crowell. Zach Crowell also one of the producers on Jelly Roll’s Whisitt Chapel. Jason Aldean is signed to BBR Records, which is the same label Jelly Roll is signed to.
When Jelly Roll said ahead of the release of Whitsitt Chapel that the album was going to be a “super country record,” his frame of reference for “super country” was Sam Hunt, “Dirt Road Anthem,” and Three 6 Mafia’s 808s, all of which are empirically more related to hip-hop than country. Jelly Roll didn’t cite George Strait or Garth Brooks, or even Luke Bryan or Tim McGraw. This speaks to Jelly Roll’s entirely misguided and patently incorrect concept of what country music is. And he’s not alone.
The host of The New York Times Popcast Jon Caramanica is a pop journalist who many times in the past has made it patently clear that he believes country music should sound more like performers such as Sam Hunt and Kidd G to “open up” the music. Being a pop writer, Caramanica believes country should sound more like the pop that appeals to him. In the interview, Caramanica gives credit to Hunt and “all the work that Sam Hunt was doing” in the 2010s for opening the door for a performer such as Jelly Roll in country music.
The co-host of this particular Popcast episode, Joe Coscarelli, is a hip-hop journalist and writer, and also offers no scrutiny to Jelly Roll, let alone devil’s advocacy to Jelly Roll’s “country” claims. And all of this happens under the auspices of the “paper of record,” The New York Times, which doesn’t see the need to employ an actual country music writer who can lend to this discussion with knowledge, authority, expertise, and proper context.
Why does any of this matter? Because Jelly Roll now has a CMA Award for Best New Artist, and two important country women that country needs more of in Hailey Whitters and Megan Moroney don’t. Neither do Zach Bryan and Parker McCollum who both came up through the grassroots of country. Meanwhile, Jelly Roll was a rapper who migrated into country, and very well might migrate back out when greener pastures present themselves. And if he does, country music will never get that CMA trophy back.
Country music has been burned too often in near history by awarding artists with the CMA New Artist of the Year that end up either jumping ship from country, or turn out to be creeps. Maren Morris, Jimmie Allen, Kacey Musgraves, and The Band Perry come to mind as recent New Artist of the Year recipients that are no longer active participants in the country genre.
Jelly Roll comes from a long line of great American hustlers, whose hustle has brought him to the financially lucrative space of mainstream major label country music. He talks about sobriety, but openly admits he doesn’t really practice it. He speaks about God and Jesus, but at times seems to only practice Christianity in a performative fashion, and sings about this specifically. He claims he’s country, but is really a rap/pop/rock artist. These are all classic American hustles.
And the biggest American hustle of them all is to constantly have your name associated with charity. Make no mistake, Jelly Roll’s giving back to the Nashville community that he’s a native of appears sincere, as well as prolific. This is not to question his ethics or the authenticity of these efforts.
But the constant, effervescent, daily and dutiful human interest reporting about Jelly Roll by Whiskey Riff, American Songwriter, Taste of Country, and others without any scrutiny has gone from over-the-top to outright nauseating while never acknowledging the clear marketing angle behind these charitable efforts.
Meanwhile, country artists like Chris Stapleton, Tyler Childers, and many others do many acts of charity each year without any public acknowledgement of them whatsoever, by the artists or the press, and on purpose.
Jelly Roll sheds more alligator tears than Garth Brooks—which is saying a lot—while holding back more skeleton’s in the closet that the rest of Nashville’s performer class combined. While he’s giving back, perhaps Jelly Roll could look into helping to compensate the mothers of the dead workers of his former country rap associate Mikel Knight who won a $20 million wrongful death lawsuit against Knight, and have yet to be paid out.
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Again, you want to like Jelly Roll. His story and career arc are compelling. He can write a good song. But that doesn’t make him country. Being country is not simply a declaration you make. It’s born out through your music, or it’s not.
I’d come to peace with Jelly Roll in the country space because he was the exception, not the rule. Similar to Bro-Country, country rap is compartmentalized as a concern in mainstream country, and on the wane. What’s on the march is actual country music, illustrated by the major success of artists like Lainey Wilson who just won the CMA Entertainer of the Year, and the aforementioned Megan Moroney. What is also on the march is more quality songs, including some cut by Jelly Roll.
Country music is succeeding right now in popular music like never before, and it’s because country music is leaning into its roots, and shirking the advice of Jon Caramanica and others who’ve been claiming country music needs to incorporate more pop and hip-hop elements to evolve and survive in the future. On the contrary, country music needs to be itself, assert what makes it unique in popular music, and not try to pander to anyone.
Country fans should not allow a pop writer, a hip-hop writer, and a rap performer to lecture them on what country music is, and what it should be. That is for country fans, country artists, and country writers embedded within this community and working in it on a daily basis to decide.
Go ahead and fuck a goat, Jelly Roll. That still won’t make you country. If you want to be considered country, if you want to stop fielding criticism about how you aren’t, then make actual country music instead of just claiming you are for marketing purposes.