Jelly Roll Is Everywhere in Country Music

photo: Chum Daddy

Former rap and hick-hop artist Jelly Roll is poised to become one of the biggest artists in country music in the coming weeks, months, and years. His new album Whitsitt Chapel is set to be released on June 2nd, and will be his first full foray into country music after the country single “Son of a Sinner” hit #1 and was Certified Platinum.

“Son of a Sinner” was one of the only country-ish songs on Jelly Roll’s 2021 album Ballads of the Broken. But with the success of that song and now his new single “Need a Favor,” Jelly Roll has decided to go full blown country, and both the industry and the media are embracing the performer to a degree we haven’t seen for a rising star in years.

Jelly Roll was the indisputable winner of the controversial 2023 CMT Awards when he walked away with three trophies. He’s booked for a big performance at the ACM Awards Thursday night (5-11), though he’s not nominated for anything. Announced just this week, ABC is producing an entire documentary on the rising star called Jelly Roll: Save Me set to premier on May 30th. Jelly Roll is also partnering with Garth Brooks to participate in the first ever Billboard Country Live in Conversation event in June.

On April 25th, the “Still Playin’ Possum” tribute to George Jones happened in Huntsville, Alabama with 26 artists in total performing at the tribute. When Jelly Roll was added late to the lineup, Rolling Stone wrote a dedicated article about the addition, as if it was somehow a revolutionary development. After performing one song at the concert, Jelly Roll was the focal point of Rolling Stone’s coverage again, not Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, Wynonna, Tanya Tucker, or any of the other two dozen stars that performed.

Also on April 26th, The New York Times posted a big spread about Jelly Roll.

Everywhere you turn, Jelly Roll’s very recognizable name and face are there. Folks are falling over themselves to work with him or feature him in ways we haven’t seen for other fast-rising artists with organic followings like Lainey Wilson, Megan Moroney, Zach Bryan, and Bailey Zimmerman. So what exactly is going on here? Why is Jelly Roll on a roll in country music?

When it comes to the media both inside and outside of country music proper, Jelly Roll embodies what they believe is an important element that country music needs, which is a subversive character whose origins are in hip-hop that can help undermine the genre’s stodgy and conservative environment. A guy with face tattoos is completely antithetical to what the elite in the media believe country music wants to be.

And since their opinion of country music and its fans is often down-looking and simple-minded—and they believe that the mere presence of someone that looks like Jelly Roll will cause a radical changing of minds—it has made Jelly Roll a media darling. It also helps that much of the media tasked to cover country outside of the genre is actually native to hip-hop, making them more willing to gravitate to an artist like Jelly Roll, while ignoring country music’s more native performers.

But in many ways, the media is misreading this situation entirely. Sure, there is a segment of country music purists who are repulsed by the idea of someone with face tattoos singing country. But overall, country fans are receptive to most anyone in the genre, as long as they’re good, and as long as they’re country. And when it comes to the most recent incarnation of Jelly Roll, both of these things are more true than not.

If anything, actual country fans are much more unforgiving to cute little white girls like Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris who are singing straight up pop songs and calling country fans pieces of shit on Twitter. It’s Jelly Roll’s songs and redemption story that has drawn country fans in. It’s not only made country fans forgiving of Jelly Roll’s face tattoos and hip-hop past. It’s made country music embrace him with open arms.

Jelly Roll is a pronounced Christian who is actively renouncing his previous ways when he sold and used drugs. His current single “Need a Favor” and the upcoming album Whitsitt Chapel are faith-based works. Like we’ve seen with previous artists, Jelly Roll is using the country genre as a way to get clean, to mature, and to find faith.

Speaking on Apple Radio recently, Jelly Roll said about his transition to country,

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.”

At the CMA Awards in November of last year, Jelly Roll explained that he was only hiring second chance individuals to work on his “Rolling With Jelly” food truck. “Every other place in the world is like, ‘If you got a felony, you can’t work here.’ We’re only hiring felons. They run the food truck and come out on tour with us some nights,” Jelly Roll says. It is part of his greater initiative to support at-risk youth in Tennessee.

This brings to mind another country rapper named Mikel Knight that Saving Country Music wrote a viral exposé about in 2015 called “The Sound of Deception: Mikel Night and His Notorious Street Teams.” Knight was also known for hiring at risk and second chance men as part of street teams he would deploy across the country to sell CDs by hand.

Over the eight years of investigating Mikel Knight and the alleged abuse suffered by his street team members, Jelly Roll’s name came up commonly. Not only was Jelly Roll said to be the secret hand behind many of Mikel Knight’s songs—sometimes writing, producing, and arranging them for Mikel Knight to then step in and record the vocals for himself—Jelly Roll’s image appeared on the side of Mikel Knight’s street team vehicles, his CDs were sold beside Mikel Knight’s, and the two collaborated on tracks together.

What sources inside the Mikel Knight camp told Saving Country Music is that as time went on, Jelly Roll distanced himself from Mikel Knight as major news outlets began to report on the abuse suffered by Mikel Knight street team members, and Jelly Roll was trying to find a more straight and narrow path forward.

In October of 2022, Mikel Knight was found liable in the deaths to two former street team members, Taylor Robert Nixon and Robert Joseph Underfinger III. The two men were both killed in a June 16th, 2014 accident in Donley County, Texas while working for Mikel Knight. A jury ruled that Knight must pay a total of $20.7 million in compensatory and punitive damages to the mothers of the two young men. Of course, the mothers have yet to see the $20 million they’re owed.

Jelly Roll shouldn’t be held responsible for Mikel Knight’s actions, and nobody is saying he should. But now that he’s found such overwhelming success and the press is so enamored with him, maybe it would be cool for Jelly Roll to help make the victims of Mikel Knight whole too, and the press to ask the burgeoning country music superstar about the issue. It was the story of another street team member, Ky Rodgers, that helped expose Mikel Knight in the first place. Rogers has his own music career now.

Jello Roll (real name Jason Bradley DeFord) was born in the Nashville suburb of Antioch, giving him deeper ties to Nashville that many of the country stars in the city. There is a lot to still be determined about just where Jelly Roll will fit into the grand scheme of things in country music. Right now, the press coverage and opportunities outpace the output.

This isn’t all about the press though. Jelly Roll’s label Broken Bow Records sees him as the label’s next superstar, and are putting everything behind him. Yes, a significant amount of the appeal behind Jelly Roll is organic. But the hype machine is definitely up and running for him too. It just happens to be that the audience is actually receptive to him, unlike other hyped artists with no audience, like Breland.

Jelly Roll’s sincerity has disarmed many of his critics, the songs have hushed a lot of the naysayers, and he’s endeared himself to the community in a way that may be unexpected to many in the press. But it shouldn’t be. As long as you’re honest and real, country music is often welcoming, regardless of someone’s background and identity. Sometimes the genre has been too welcoming, allowing charlatans and interlopers into the fold, only to be burned later.

We’ll have to see where Jelly Roll ultimately ends up. But at the moment, he’s headed straight for the top.

© 2023 Saving Country Music