Jelly Roll has had some soaring highs and terrifying lows throughout his life. They will all soon be on display for the world to see in Save Me, a new documentary on his path from his troubled childhood to years in and out of jail, to becoming one of country music’s biggest stars.
For Jelly Roll, whose real name is Jason DeFord, it’s almost more than even he can fathom. Almost.
“My whole mission in life is to touch people,” Jelly Roll tells ABC. “I just want to help people, man. I want to help those that feel helpless because I felt helpless for so long. And I think this documentary is really going to get into the weeds of that.”
“But this documentary was also really eye-opening for me because sometimes I don’t understand the impact I’m having,” he adds. “I get to see just a minute teaser of this documentary and I cried. I mean, I cried. I cried for like 20 minutes after I watched it.”
Save Me shows details in Jelly Roll’s life that he wasn’t sure he wanted to uncover, including his years of battling addiction.
“We got gritty, we got in the trenches together,” Jelly Roll says. “We let [the producers] get access to the stuff that artists are afraid to let people get access to. And we told the truth. I’m nervous, but I am excited.”
It was while he was incarcerated for, thankfully, the last time that he found out he had become a father. He determined that when he was released from prison that time, he would never, ever go back.
“I came out of jail with a plan. I was going to put every piece of energy I had into music. It’s almost like something just clicked, right then,” Jelly Roll says in Save Me. “I came home and jumped out of the window with no parachute.”
No one is more surprised than Jelly Roll that he is now selling out arenas, breaking music records and headlining a massive tour. It’s an unexpected twist of fate that the Nashville native determines to wholeheartedly embrace.
“I’ve been a drug addict,” Jelly Roll admits, “I’ve been a stealer. I’m really a street kid that didn’t have any self-worth. I don’t know if I thought I deserved a better life. I was willing to do whatever it took to have one.”
Jelly Roll, who says his mental health was the “biggest demon” in his life, is now pursuing music with everything he has, not just for him, but his fans.
“I feel like I owe it to my people to give them hope,” he says, adding, “If I wasn’t a musician I’d be dead.”
Jelly Roll donated all of the proceeds from his sold-out Bridgestone Arena show in 2022 to building a recording studio inside the Davidson County Juvenile Detention Center. He also plans to open halfway houses and transitional centers. For the 38-year-old, it’s a way to make sure others don’t make the mistakes he once did.
“I’m going to do so much for at-risk youth in Nashville, because my life changed in that,” Jelly Roll says on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast. “I look back at it, and I talk about it so much that sometimes I desensitize myself to how traumatic it really was. I spent my 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th birthday incarcerated, straight. My daughter will inevitably, by the grace of God, get a car for her 16th birthday. … They didn’t even give me an extra piece of cake for dinner.
“I didn’t have a guard tell me happy 15th or 16th birthday,” he adds. “You don’t get a family visit. I missed high school completely. I was in high school, I think we actually pulled the records, like six weeks.”
Jelly Roll only recently opened up about the worst crime he ever committed, one that has had permanent consequences for him.
I spent most of my [life], from 14 to 25, in jail. I spent a ton of time. At 16 I was charged as an adult for a charge,” Jelly Roll recalls. “This will be the first time I actually talked about the charge. I’ll just say it was a heinous crime, admittedly. It was horrible. We robbed a couple of guys for some weed, but they called the police because we took some money and stuff. It was an armed robbery. We went in there with a gun.”
“I regret it every day of my life,” he adds. “I was a kid. I’m not making an excuse. But I would like to paint the picture. … I’m a 15-year-old kid when it happened. I still feel horrible about it. But because the state of Tennessee has a zero-forgiveness policy for violent offenders, I’ve carried that unexpungable felony for 20-something years.”
If not for his daughter, Bailee, Jelly Roll could still be in and out of jail, without any real reason — at least to him — to better his life.
“I was in the revolving door of the judicial system, in and out,” Jelly Roll says. “I knew I’d gotten a woman pregnant. I’m back in jail; she’s pregnant. She hates me. We’re not talking; I’m a bad human. She’s right. I was a horrible human. I was sitting in there, and that guard knocks on my door, May 22nd, 2008. ‘DeFord.. you have a kid today.’”
“It was like a Damascus Road experience in the Bible,” he recalls. “I immediately was like, ‘I’ve got to do something to change. I’ve got to quit this sh–. I’ve got to figure it out.’”
Jelly Roll’s Whitsitt Chapel album will be released on June 2. He will embark on his Backroad Baptism Tour in July, joined by a rotating list of opening acts, including Ashley McBryde, Chase Rice, Struggle Jennings, Caitlynne Curtis, Elle King, Merkules, Three 6 Mafia, Yelawolf and Josh Adam Meyers. Whitsitt Chapel is available for pre-order here. Find all of Jelly Roll’s music and upcoming shows at JellyRoll615.com.
Save Me will premiere on Hulu on May 30.