You’ve probably heard of the former rap rocker turned mainstream country artist Jelly Roll since he’s all the rage in mainstream country these days. With tattoos all over his face, a husky build, and more overly-sentimental moments than Garth Brooks, he’s kind of hard to miss.
But there is actually another Jelly Roll in country music who was long established well before the new Jelly Roll came onto the scene. He happens to be celebrating his 70th birthday today, July 4th, 2023. And in the spirit of making sure this important country music contributor and legend doesn’t get overlooked, let’s pay tribute to country music’s original Jelly Roll.
Kirk “Jelly Roll” Johnson is one of the most accomplished musicians in modern country history, with his work found on over 60 Gold and Platinum albums, and hundreds of recordings. Aside from Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie McCoy, Jelly Roll is perhaps the most prolific country music harmonica player in history.
Any time you hear harmonica on a Randy Travis track, it’s Kirk “Jelly Roll” Johnson playing it, including on three Grammy-winning albums. Alan Jackson, The Judds, Reba McEntire, Kenny Rogers, Doug Stone, Trisha Yearwood, Travis Tritt, Lynn Anderson, Lee Ann Womack, Guy Clark, Darrell Scott, Pam Tillis, Mark Chesnutt, Lorrie Morgan, Clay Walker, Jamey Johnson, Josh Turner, Hank Williams Jr., and even more contemporary artists like Kenny Chesney and Luke Bryan have all utilized Jelly Roll on recordings.
Originally from Lake Charles, Louisiana, Jelly Roll has been playing harmonica professionally for going on 50 years. He began playing at age 19 while living in Cleveland, Tennessee. He played clarinet when he was in school, which wasn’t really a country or rock instrument. So his dad handed him a harmonica, and he fell in love.
After working as a touring musician for numerous bands in the rock, blues, and country disciplines, Jelly Roll settled in Knoxville, Tennessee where he had a standing gig with the Tommy Cole Band. He also played for about a decade with Knoxville-based country artist Con Hunley.
But the big moment in Jelly Roll’s career was when he moved to Nashville in 1984 and started participating in recording sessions. Randy Travis and producer Kyle Lehning found favor with Jelly Roll, and his appearance on all of those early Randy Travis albums made him a hot commodity in Nashville.
Along with his studio work, Jelly Roll appeared on television with numerous artists, including appearances on the CMA Awards behind multiple performers, with Alan Jackson on The Tonight Show, Faith Hill on The Late Show, and Con Hunley on Austin City Limits. Jelly Roll can also regularly be seen around Nashville, including performing at The Bluebird Cafe in songwriting rounds with folks like Don Schlitz, who Jelly Roll marks as a close friend.
Kirk “Jelly Roll” Johnson won the 2003 and 2008 Best Specialty Instrument Award from the Academy of Country Music, and in 2017, received a Lifetime Acheivement Award from harmonica maker Hohner. In 2018, he was awarded the Pete Pedersen Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (SPAH).
Jelly Roll has also released numerous solo albums under the name Jelly Roll Johnson, and appeared on other instrumental albums and compilations as a primary contributor. And he’s done it all while suffering with a hereditary disorder known as polycystic kidney disease. His dad passed away from the disorder, and he was first diagnosed with it in 1981.
In the late 2010’s Jelly Roll’s liver and one of his kidneys began to swell to huge sizes. Jelly Roll underwent eight surgeries, had to be on dialysis to stay alive, and eventually underwent organ transplants in 2017 that saved his life. Shortly thereafter, he was back at The Bluebird blowing harp.
Along with Charlie McCoy, Mickey Raphael (known for playing with Willie Nelson), and DeFord Bailey who helped codify the harmonica as an instrument of country music, Jelly Roll is one of the most important harmonica players in country music history. But just like so many side players and session musicians, Jelly Roll tends to blend into the background.
The name “Jelly Roll” is a long-standing handle in the blues and jazz world, often attributed as a reference to a certain female body part. Piano player “Jelly Roll” Morton was one of the founders of jazz, and “Jelly Roll Blues” is a standard of American music.
But among his fellow studio musicians, side players, and harp blowers, when you mention the name “Jelly Roll,” there is one man they think of first. It’s the original Jelly Roll of country music: Kirk “Jelly Roll” Johnson.