The opening words to Jelly Roll’s “Son of a Sinner” are a little awkward upon first listen, but they also underscore one of the odd truths of art: sometimes the most impactful messages are also the ones that make you the most uncomfortable.
Those introductory lines — “I never get lonely/I got these ghosts to keep me company” — use off-balance phrasing, wedging the three-syllable “company” into a space where only one syllable belongs. But they’re also challenging at a deeper level because ghosts are often thought to haunt and disrupt the conscious world, not provide friendship.
On repeated listens, that opening salvo is essential to “Son of a Sinner,” with the discomfort setting the scene for a moody, intentionally uneasy journey. “It goes back to right and wrong,” says Jelly Roll, aka Jason DeFord. “Everything about it was wrong, but felt so right.”
Indeed, navigating the divide between “right and wrong,” the full-circle, final phrase in the song’s anthemic chorus, is at the heart of “Son of a Sinner,” an abstract assessment of an addict’s emotional battle. The song was crafted after an unexpected visit from a guest.
Jelly Roll had rented Nashville’s Sound Emporium — a historic studio that has hosted key sessions by Alan Jackson, Kenny Rogers and Waylon Jennings — for some informal songwriting with visitors dropping in on short notice in 2021. Longtime collaborator David Ray Stevens had already spent over eight hours with Jelly Roll when singer-songwriter ERNEST showed up on a Saturday night while picking up a barbecue dinner with his wife. Stevens loaned ERNEST his guitar and set him up with a drop-D tuning that sounds more weighty than the standard tuning.
“I came in half-buzzed, my shirt was unbuttoned, sat down, picked up a guitar, they put a VoiceNote on, and I kind of spit out that chorus,” ERNEST recalls. “We messed around with a verse for like 20 minutes, and then I left.”
“When Ernest was finished and handed me my guitar back,” continues Stevens, “he was like, ‘I don’t know where that came from, but I’m glad they sent it to us.’ He just kind of looked at it like something from above entered the room and made that spill out.”
ERNEST’s chorus provided a big-picture cry from the soul, a determined move forward for an embattled man who’s “one drink away from the devil.” But once ERNEST split, Jelly Roll was left to build verses that feel much like a counselor’s couch.
“The verses, I wanted Jelly Roll’s handprints all over,” ERNEST says, “for him to be him.”
The opening stanza puts him out on a lonely highway, a scenario that accentuates his life as a traveling musician. The second verse finds him tempted by pills, promising it will be his last time to indulge, though he quickly concedes he’s “lying to myself again.” The struggle is all internal, a bit ethereal and definitely personal.
“There [are] points in the song where it becomes extremely autobiographical,” says Jelly Roll. “Some music’s meant to be heard, and some music is meant to be felt. Personally, I try to make the kind of music that’s meant to be felt.”
It all worked up to a bridge that’s full of meaning and metaphor — mistakes, pain, a string of vices and a confession to God: “At first He’s gonna hate me/But eventually He’ll save me.” That references Jelly Roll’s own musical past — he co-wrote a gold single, “Save Me,” with Stevens — and wrestles with the judgment prevalent in religion.
“There’s definitely an eerie kind of hopeless, yet hopeful, vibe [in] the whole track,” Stevens says. “I think that’s where a lot of Jelly Roll’s music connects, you know. He’s a person who came from the bottom, and a lot of his audience comes from the bottom. I think that’s why country music is lending their ear to him and accepting it.”
Once Jelly Roll and Stevens finished it, they partied with a few other drive-by guests until roughly 3:30 a.m., when Jelly Roll decided to record the “Son of a Sinner” vocal. “I was heavily intoxicated and stoned,” he confesses.
“That, I can promise you, was the truth,” adds Stevens. “No one pours a shot larger than Jelly Roll.”
Jelly Roll moved into the vocal booth and sang along with a guitar track ERNEST had created before he left. The room got quiet as Jelly Roll, his inhibitions likely dimmed by the alcohol, put his entire being into the performance.
“I remember it being a very emotional moment,” he says. “And I remember getting goose bumps as soon as I came in and sang, ‘I never get lonely/I got these ghosts to keep me company.’ There was just a chill bump that ran through my body. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever had a song in the studio that I knew was going to be special.”
Newly signed at the time to Stoney Creek, he took it to BMG Nashville president of recorded music Jon Loba, who gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up and encouraged Jelly Roll to find the right producer for it. He enlisted ERNEST, who in turn asked guitarist Ilya Toshinsky to help with the process.
ERNEST lobbied for a minimalistic, rock-leaning track, mixing a Jason Isbell influence with mainstream country-rock sensibilities. The musicians delivered it while relying on power-chord structures that allowed the crew to give a major-key song a minor-key tone, and the band reached its apex at the bridge, with bassist Craig Young ripping through a flurry of notes uncommon in the country genre.
“Craig literally got hospitalized right after we cut this song,” recalls Toshinsky. “He was complaining of stomach pain. He thought he would be fine, but as the last chord was ringing out, he was leaving to go check himself into the ER. Two days later, he got diagnosed for COVID-19. He had a horrible couple of weeks there, but Craig, he’s so expressive on the bass.”
Toshinsky overdubbed razor-like slide guitar at a later date, and ERNEST and Jelly Roll aced the ghostly foundation with a series of low vocal notes. Toshinsky also asked drummer Shannon Forrest to redo the original percussion track, mostly to take advantage of the sound at Forrest’s home studio. He used brushes instead of sticks, with the performance further enhancing the song’s ghostly undercurrent.
“There’s some nice tom work that Shannon did that [exploits] this amazing, spacious room with super-high ceilings, so when he hit the drums, there’s this resonance that’s just unreal,” Toshinsky says. “Buckley Miller mixed this thing, and Buckley did a great job just capturing that ambience.”
“Son of a Sinner” started on rock radio, reaching top 20 on the Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart after 18 weeks. Enough country stations picked it up that “Sinner” debuted on the Country Airplay list dated March 12, ahead of its March 31 release via PlayMPE. It lifts to No. 28 in week nine on the survey dated May 7.
“The music we make is extremely cathartic,” says Jelly Roll. “I meet fans every night who tell me some of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard in my life. If, hypothetically, it was just one person, I could never quit writing these songs. I have a duty to continue to try to touch that one person.”