Nashville Native Jelly Roll on Shifting From Hip Hop to Country-Rock: 'I Want to Change The Way Music Is Done on Those Streets'

Jelly Roll
Don Henson*

Jelly Roll

Though country music newcomer Jelly Roll grew up just south of downtown, he didn’t spend years playing in the honky tonks on Nashville’s Lower Broadway. Though he recalls his mother often playing the music of Waylon Jennings and other pioneers of country’s Outlaw movement, Jelly Roll was drawn to the music and culture of the hip-hop scene.

“The culture I was first exposed to was hip-hop. Not even just music, but the culture -- breakdancing, graffiti, freestyling, the clothing," Jelly Roll, whose real name is Jason DeFord, tells Billboard while en route to a video shoot. "I didn’t know there was this other country music culture in town. You just knew the culture you were exposed to.”

Nonetheless, he understands the full magnitude of playing a sold-out, headlining hometown show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium tomorrow (Sept. 17).

“It is the most surreal thing that could have ever happened to me," he says. "I dreamed of being on that stage since I was a kid but never thought I would -- because I came from the rap and hip-hop world and now I live in the rock/country space. I’ll be the third “rap act’: Wu-Tang, Common and Jelly Roll.”

The same day he headlines the Ryman, Jelly Roll will release his debut album for BBR Music Group, Ballads of the Broken, a 10-song redemption album that traces the singer, rapper and songwriter’s journey from the drug addiction and jail time that marked his teens and early twenties, to finding a more centered emotional space.

“Complete vulnerability is my constant goal in writing. Music was the way I found out I wasn’t alone,” he says.

Jelly Roll starting writing poems as a child, and by middle school those poems had evolved into rap verses. Then came Limewire and making mixtapes. As an independent artist, he released nearly two dozen projects, including collaborative albums with Lil Wyte, Struggle Jennings and Haystak, and appeared on Ryan Upchurch’s 2017 album King of Dixie.

Last year, Jelly Roll’s career reached a new milestone with the intense ballad “Save Me.” It was the first song he sang his lead vocal instead of rapping. His powerful voice and the track’s vulnerable lyrics resonated with listeners, earning Jelly Roll his first Gold-certified song from the Recording Industry Association of America. On his new album, except for a sole rap verse, Jelly Roll sings -- and bares his soul -- more than ever.

“It’s the first where I’m leaning into nothing but singing,” he says. “And I was scared. I’m still a little uncomfortable in my voice, to be honest. But 'Save Me' was a breakthrough for me, because people could really hear my voice and pain -- and I sing from a lifetime of hurt.”

Both in interviews and in music, Jelly Roll is open about his struggles with addiction. In his teens and early twenties, he was in and out of jail. As a teen, he was charged with robbery and at 21, he was charged with possession with intent to distribute.

“In the beginning, I did a lot of drugs. I drank a lot of codeine, a lot of cough syrup," he explains. "I took a lot of Xanax, did a lot of cocaine, just really took it overboard. I’ve had years -- dude, I don’t remember years. Also, addiction for me is more than just my problems. My child’s mother disappeared from her life for almost five years because of a heroin addiction. Thankfully, she’s sober and back in her life now. My mother has struggled with addiction her whole life. When you grow up in a middle- and lower-class community, no one sees the effects of drug abuse like those people."

His music takes those raw, unreserved verses and melds elements of country, rock, and hip-hop into his own signature style.

“I was joking with someone the other day and they said, ‘You dress like someone who’s been exposed to four different things,’" he says. "And I am -- my sister listened to The Offspring and Sublime and Chris Cornell. My brother played Tupac and Too $hort, and [my mother] played outlaw country. To this day, I dress like a rocker, wear jewelry and a hat like a rapper, and boots like a country guy.”

His music found its way to Jon Loba, president, BMG Nashville, who signed Jelly Roll on the spot. Jelly Roll is co-managed by War Dog Management and Emagen Entertainment Group, and signed with BMG for publishing and CAA for booking.

"I had been telling the staff for about a year, 'We need a country Post Malone. So much of his audience and our audience are the same. Where is that guy?'" Loba tells Billboard. "Our VP of innovation and streaming, Adrian Michaels, told me I should check out Jelly Roll. About 60 minutes into his music and YouTube content, I was obsessed."

Jelly Roll's talent, story and honesty appealed to the BBR Music Group team.

"Jelly Roll is one of the most prolific storytellers I have ever known, drawing from real experiences born from real pain, real struggles, real failures and real victories," Loba adds. "He gives voice to a segment of society that is often overlooked or marginalized, and is so incredibly inspirational while doing it. Who wouldn't be inspired by someone who was in prison at such a young age, and is now an incredibly successful businessman, husband and father -- and doing it on his own terms, without the help of the traditional music machine?"

On his new album, several songs address Jelly Roll’s past struggles head on. “Sober” “Son of a Sinner,” and “Dead Man Walking” detail the internal struggle to find peace and balance after battling addiction.

“The thing about the addictive personality is that everything is in [extremes],” he says. “I’ve woken up hungover and told myself a thousand times that I’m never going to drink like that again," he says. "And then you go get drunk that night or a few nights later. With this album, especially songs like ‘Son of a Sinner,’ I’m trying to say that there can be a balance.”

Perhaps his favorite track on the album is a scratch vocal demo of “Mobile Home,” which centers on being true to yourself.

“I bought my mom a house once, but she wanted to move back to a trailer to live by her sister," he recalls. "A 3,000-square-foot house I bought her in Spring Hill [Tennessee] didn’t mean sh--t. I do all these things for her now that I’m successful, but I go see her and she’s still sitting in a trailer, smoking a cigarette, watching Days of Our Lives... So it’s about her, and my lifestyle choices, as well.”

Loba says Jelly Roll's shift to lean more on singing will help bring new fans to his music: "Jelly Roll is at heart a storyteller. Those stories are not genre specific. We are just presenting some of those stories in a form where an even wider audience will listen. 'Save Me' was proof that his stories, combined with melodic hooks and simple production would resonate beyond his core Urban fans, while not losing that incredibly important audience which will always be represented in his music."

Though the label will continue to build Jelly Roll's story through streaming, socials and press, Loba is not ruling out taking a song to country radio: "If Jelly Roll has a consumption story on a single that could work at country radio -- and I expect he will, whether it is this album or some exciting stuff he is working on for the next album -- we absolutely will take that single to country radio."

With another music venture, Jelly Roll takes a cue from hip hop’s legacy of entrepreneurship. Inspired by Tree Sound Studios outside Atlanta, a recording home to artists including Outkast, Yelawolf, and Run the Jewels’ Killer Mike, Jelly Roll opened a small songwriting and pre-production studio around Music Row.

He aims for a space where artists can relax and focus on creating an organic collaboration. “The place doesn’t even really have a name," he says. "There’s pics of Johnny Cash on the walls. There’s ashtrays and jars of weed everywhere. We’re very 4/20-friendly. There’s an open liquor cabinet.”

While Nashville is known for songwriters who write every day 9-to-5, Jelly Roll is hoping to operate more like Big Loud, where acts like HARDY have ongoing collaborations with other artists instead of relying on labels to pair them.  "It’s why a place like Big Loud is on such a winning streak right now -- all those dudes are in the same room together, just organically collaborating, like the Death Row Records of Nashville," he offers. "I want to change the dichotomy of the way music is done on those streets. I don’t like the idea of, ‘We’ve got to write from 11 to 2.’ Don’t put me on a clock here. ‘We show up and hope the magic does?’ [Laughs.] What if the writing gods want to show up from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. and you miss it because you’re f--king asleep?”

On Friday, when he takes the stage at the Ryman, he hopes to bring several of his current and previous collaborators to the stage, including Jennings. But he says his most important collaboration that evening will be with the fans in the audience: “A Jelly Roll show is not a concert, it’s a family reunion of people healing. We want to bring people together, the underdogs to win and the losers to have something to be proud of.”