Yeah, I’ve Heard of Jelly Roll

Well now, it appears that Nashville has a new toy. And really, it’s an old toy. His name is Jelly Roll, and a pseudo “country” song of his called “Son of a Sinner” has been slowly creeping up the country radio charts, causing the usual suspects who love to pontificate about paradigm shifts in country saying the heavy set and heavily tattooed rapper turned country artist could be the next big thing. I certainly have my reservations about his music. I have even deeper reservations about his prospects in country in the long term.

The first time Jelly Roll came onto my radar is when he appeared in a Vice documentary that yours truly also appeared in delving into the country rap scene. Jelly Roll has been active for over a dozen years now, collaborating previously with a Memphis rapper named Lil Wyte, the influential hip-hop collective Three 6 Mafia, and fellow Nashville-based country rapper Struggle Jennings, who is the grandson of Duane Eddy, but plays up his association with Waylon Jennings after Eddy’s former wife Jessi Colter married Waylon, making Struggle Waylon’s step-grandson.

A Nashville native who grew up in the Antioch neighborhood, Jelly Roll’s real name is Jason DeFord. He’s put together quite a successful underground hip-hop career from his perch in Music City, but never one that really interfaced with country, except for his affiliations with underground country rappers such as Struggle Jennings, Ryan Upchurch, and the notorious Mikel Knight.

But in 2021, Jelly Roll released an album via the Nashville-based country label BBR Music, also known as Broken Bow. Called Ballads of the Broken, along with hip-hop, there’s a fair bit of rock on the album as well, evidenced by how the first single from the album called “Dead Man Walking” peaked at #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. It only made it to #30 on the more consumption-based Hot Rock Songs chart, so that tells you that radio promotion by BBR was a big player in getting it to #1.

Enter Jelly Roll’s second single from the record called “Son of a Sinner.” It’s currently sitting at #28 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart, and #32 on the Hot Country Songs chart—again showing a discrepancy between general appeal and radio promotion. Pulling up recent country radio trade publications like Billboard Country Update and Country Aircheck, Jelly Roll and his face tattoos are featured prominently in ads begging for radio play. BBR really wants this to be a hit.

And as a song, “Son of a Sinner” really isn’t that bad. Jelly Roll shows off a soulful voice often hidden in his hip-hop escapades, and the song finds an emotional soft spot, even if interspersed in the writing are some of those radio-friendly buzzwords such as “Ford,” “backroads,” “God,” “drink,” and “highway” that find favor with country radio’s program directors. It’s still a bit of a stretch to call the song country, but it’s also unfair to call it bad. It’s a fair shade better than most of what is played on country radio, and some of what is pushed through independent circles.

In truth, when you consider the output of Jelly Roll’s side of the country rap world along with guys like Struggle Jennings, Yelawolf, and a few others, it definitely goes deeper than the low rung outfits like Locash, The Moonshine Bandits, and Bubba Sparxxx, and most certainly deeper than the mainstream set like Breland. My issue with Jelly Roll’s music is the same with Struggle Jennings. So much of it is just … well … whiny, complaining how terrible their life is and they can’t catch a break. I’m no life coach, but maybe don’t blow your child support money on face tattoos, and life won’t be so hard.

But those selling Jelly Roll as the next big thing in country should probably slow their roll. “Son of a Sinner” is already starting to show signs of slowing down on its country radio ascent. Ultimately where it ends up is mostly dependent on how much promotion BBR chooses to put behind it. But after that, there’s not a train of other country radio songs they can release from Jelly Roll’s latest album to maintain his country relevance.

Meanwhile, Jelly Roll has recently been talking about working some with Three 6 Mafia again, and is planning on releasing an album with the washed-up Brantley Gilbert later this year. Gilbert is another one of these guys whose name comes up in this mixed up country/rap/hip-hop world as one of the original writers of Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” which was released in 2011 and became the biggest country song that year, underscoring that all these musical pundits proclaiming a paradigm shift from the success of Jelly Roll in country are over a decade late. In fact it’s the decidedly un-Bro-Country aspect of Jelly Roll’s “Son of a Sinner” that makes it interesting.

They’ve also announced that Jelly Roll will be playing the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville on December 9th. Yes, The Bridgestone—Nashville’s biggest venue. Does the success of Jelly Roll, or “Son of a Sinner” really justify an arena show? Of course not. But this is how the hype machine works in Nashville: you announce a big show right in the mother brain of mainstream country activity, and everyone thinks you’re a superstar. Now Jelly Roll and BBR have half a year to figure out how to actually fill the seats. They’ve started by making it at least partly a charity thing for “Impact Youth Outreach.” But make no mistake, Jelly Roll is not an arena act.

I just seriously question what impact Jelly Roll is going to have on country music in the long term, and beyond one or two songs. It’s another former rapper turned country artist in Ernest that seems a lot more committed, and a lot more suited to make it in country music in the long term. Ernest’s super traditional song “Flower Shops” is currently #19 at country radio, and is currently at #14 on the consumption-based Hot Country Songs chart. That is the sign of organic appeal.

Oh, an Ernest co-wrote “Son of a Sinner” with Jelly Roll. That tells you why the track has the secret sauce to appeal to country radio, and mainstream fans.

So long story short, those concerned that some rapper dude with face tattoos will be the next big thing in country music need not worry, and those proclaiming Jelly Roll is going to revolutionize country music are being quite presumptuous. Sure, he may have another successful single or two, and “Son of a Sinner” may make it to #1 if BBR wills it into being with promotion. But irrespective of the big Bridgestone gig or anything else, I’m not buying that Jelly Roll is anything more than a rapper with a decent country radio song at the moment.

If anything it should tell you how bereft of talent mainstream country is that a guy like this can waltz into the format, and fall face first into a hit. That’s the real lesson with Jelly Roll.

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