Whenever Jelly Roll comes back from his tours, he experiences a state of depression. It took him a while to understand the reason behind it. The artist, who transitioned from rap to country music, had initially attributed it to an adrenaline crash as his body readjusted after the intense highs of being on tour. However, he recently had a breakthrough with his therapist.
During a Zoom conversation from his residence in Nashville, Tennessee, a man who spent a significant portion of his youth incarcerated shares that touring is the only time he has ever felt worthwhile. He used to believe he had no worth and only caused harm in any situation, feeling that he took up too much space. However, when he performs, he feels like he is able to give back. Now, he is working on finding value in his life offstage, which he sees as the true test.
Jelly Roll, known by his stage name and also a popular dessert, received his nickname from his mother when he was a chubby child. He is currently in high demand and feeling positive. Following eight hours of media obligations, he will travel to San Antonio for a performance and then head to California for another show. He expresses excitement for his busy schedule, saying, “That will be my day, indeed. It’s a fantastic time to be alive.”
Jason DeFord, known by his stage name Jelly Roll, recently received the Country Music award for best new artist and was also nominated in four other categories. This was the highlight of a successful year for him, as he had previously won three CMT Music awards. Just two days later, he received two Grammy nominations, including one for best new artist. At 38 years old and after releasing multiple albums in various genres, he is finally receiving mainstream recognition. He sees this as a “brokenly beautiful” experience and compares himself to Cinderella.
DeFord’s career can be divided into two distinct parts, with the release of his 2020 single Save Me marking a clear transition. Prior to this, he was known as a rapper who spent 15 years distributing mixtapes, promoting his own albums, and accepting any paid performance opportunities. However, after the release of Save Me, he has become a legitimate country star with tattoos and gold teeth, earning him the title of the new face of the genre according to a recent interview. In his own words, “the man evolved and the music evolved with him.”
Throughout his entire professional life, DeFord has consistently been open and honest about his challenges and desire for redemption. He has battled drug addiction, severe depression, low self-esteem, and feelings of insecurity. For a significant period of time, he struggled with impostor syndrome, which has now been replaced with fears of fleeting success. In his own words, he has felt like a failure, a thief, and a hopeless case whose past continues to haunt him. His latest album, Whitsitt Chapel, is a raw and poignant representation of these feelings of despair and agony.
He says, “I view myself as a man who is shattered and attempting to piece the puzzle back together.” He adds, “I saw the entire experience as a plea for assistance, and it was heard. The music represents countless individuals who have not felt heard.”
DeFord’s rise indicates a potential expansion of country music. However, while the style and artists may be becoming more diverse, there are other aspects that are becoming more rigid. In a recent interview with the LA Times, Maren Morris revealed that she had to distance herself from the genre due to what she sees as prevalent discrimination and sexism in the industry.
DeFord is cognizant of the friction, but he is not involved in political matters. He longs for a time when politics did not interfere. He despises the increasing tribalism in America. He believes that when politics becomes the only means of connecting with others, it signifies a grave situation. In his opinion, society is headed for disaster.
Is there space for progressive music in country music? “Definitely,” he responds. He mentions Tyler Childers and Sturgill Simpson as two artists who have also been vocal about liberal causes. “Maren Morris took a risk by speaking out. The truth is, country music is at its peak right now and it’s more diverse than ever before.”
DeFord was raised in Antioch, Tennessee, a working-class suburb of Nashville that he has referred to as “Anytown, USA”. His father was a meat salesman who also worked as a bookie, while his mother battled mental health issues and developed a drug addiction after being prescribed pain medication. Throughout his childhood, DeFord never felt like he fit in: he was teased at school for his size, clothing, and background. He found solace in music, rapping during middle school and attracting audiences. However, he did not know anyone who had a successful career in music. He admires artists who claim to have dreamed of stardom since childhood, but for him, that was not the case. He never imagined he would break free from a life of incarceration.
At the age of 13, he was sent to a facility for minors after being caught with marijuana. By the time he was 15, he claims to have experimented with various drugs such as pills, cocaine, acid, mushrooms, and meth. At 16, he was tried as an adult for aggravated assault when he tried to steal marijuana while carrying a weapon and received an 18-month sentence. For the next ten years, he was in and out of prison for offenses such as breaking probation, failing drug tests, and possessing crack with the intention to sell.
He continued to distribute his music through mixtapes along with the drugs he sold, but he felt hopeless and spending more time in jail did not discourage him. He compared jail to a high school reunion where he would see familiar faces and catch up with old acquaintances. He expressed the difficulty of constantly being caught in the revolving cycle of the justice system.
In 2008, while DeFord was 23 years old and confined to his cell, a guard informed him that he had a newborn daughter (whose mother was a former partner from a brief relationship). This served as the catalyst for him to make positive changes in his life. He had two goals in mind: to earn his General Educational Diploma (which he successfully did on his first attempt), pursue a career as a social worker, and avoid imprisonment or death by violence. His other aspiration was to pursue music.
At the age of 25, he was released from prison for the final time and, without any support from a studio, managed to amass a large following of fans. He proudly states, “I had accumulated one billion views on my YouTube channel before I even signed a record deal.”
Initially, the music industry was not interested. He did not fit neatly into any one genre – too rock for country, too country for rap, too rap for rock. Record labels rejected him due to his weight, tattoos, and criminal history, claiming he was not a relatable artist. He was told that no one would want to listen to a 400-pound man singing sad songs, as it did not fit the current trends in music.
In 2020, a turning point was reached with the release of Save Me, an honest plea for assistance with battling addiction. The music video gained a significant number of views on YouTube, eventually reaching hundreds of millions, and sparked interest from various record labels. Following this, he has released two acclaimed albums, Ballads of the Broken and Whitsitt Chapel.
Earlier this year, DeFord collaborated with ABC to release a documentary titled “Jelly Roll: Save Me.” The film delves into his journey of redemption, with a focus on his relationship with fans, particularly young offenders and recovering addicts. Many of these individuals have expressed how DeFord’s music has saved them or aided in their grieving process. He truly embodies every word he sings. His performances have been likened to church revivals and 12-step programs, with audience members often holding up signs honoring loved ones lost to addiction. DeFord himself admits to shedding tears almost every night on stage, especially when he recognizes and celebrates those in recovery or those supporting loved ones. The mere mention of this topic brings him to the brink of tears.
Does it ever have a negative impact on him? “I don’t see it as a bad thing at all,” he explains. “I see it as a way for God to use me to help and serve others.” Why does he believe people have such a strong reaction to him? “Unfortunately, there are not many people who write the type of songs I do or talk about the topics I do, even though they are very relatable.”
DeFord donated the profits from his sold-out performance at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, estimated to be around $400,000, to a nonprofit organization that supports at-risk youth. He also used the funds to construct a recording studio within a youth center. According to DeFord, as a child he felt that there was too much emphasis on discipline rather than rehabilitation. He believes that at 16 years old, regardless of any past mistakes, what one needs is love and support rather than punishment.
DeFord continues to experience the consequences of his conviction. Due to being found guilty of robbery, he is restricted from voting, owning a firearm, and volunteering at certain charities. Traveling has also become challenging, as he had to cancel a performance in London. DeFord has been communicating with the governor of Tennessee, and while receiving a pardon would greatly impact his life, his focus is on promoting reform in the criminal justice system. He hopes to contribute to finding a solution, having personally witnessed the issues within the system.
DeFord is urging for action to be taken on the fentanyl crisis in the US. He emphasizes the urgency by stating that 15 people die every hour from it in the country. He personally knows 30 individuals who have lost their lives to fentanyl. When he reflects on his friends who are still struggling with addiction, he feels guilty for being a survivor. He receives numerous messages from acquaintances asking for financial assistance, which he finds amusing since he is not in a position to give out large sums of money or material possessions. Reading these messages brings about feelings of guilt and shame, as well as the difficulty of distancing himself from these individuals.
His efforts to assist have been hindered by an overburdened rehabilitation system. “I recently attempted to cover the cost of rehab for someone, but after contacting every rehab facility in the country, the best option available had a two-week waiting period. What are we supposed to do during those two weeks? Let him die? I am unable to remove him from his addiction, and he may end up losing his life right here on the floor.”
Currently, DeFord continues to use marijuana and alcohol, but has eliminated the dangerous drugs that were harmful to his health. He acknowledges the importance of respecting those who have successfully completed a recovery program and achieved sobriety, and therefore is careful when discussing his own journey. In order to take care of himself, he had to give up substances like lean, pills, and cocaine. It was a necessary decision for his well-being, and he also had to learn to value and care for himself in the process.
He resides with his spouse, Bunnie DeFord, also known as Bunnie XO, a former sex worker from the western United States who is now the host of the popular Dumb Blonde podcast. Together, they have a 15-year-old daughter named Bailee from a previous relationship. He also has a son from another previous relationship who was born in 2016 and lives with his mother. He finally feels a sense of belonging and purpose in his life. “I have never felt as understood, acknowledged, appreciated, and loved as I have in the past year,” he shares. “The most significant change for me is that I know I have evolved and am no longer the person I used to be.”