Jelly Roll is on top of the world, but his ascent involved a lot of hard work, tenacity, and an unwavering belief in himself, even when no one else did. The 38-year-old has a Top 15 hit with “Save Me,” his duet with Lainey Wilson. He just won the most People’s Choice Country Awards, with four wins, and has five CMA Awards nominations, including for Male Vocalist of the Year.
Jelly Roll is also headlining his mostly sold-out Backroad Baptism Tour, and had two back-to-back No. 1 singles, both with “Son of a Sinner” and “Need A Favor.” It’s a lot of success for an artist who was rejected, over and over again, by the music industry that now applauds him and his accomplishments.
“Anybody in town that says they didn’t say no to me is a liar,” Jelly Roll, whose real name is Jason DeFord, tells the Los Angeles Times. “They said there’s no way that country radio would play an artist with face tattoos. They said I should go by Jason DeFord, as though the town needs another Jason. Somebody told me I was too fat to be relatable. They said it a little nicer. Not much — I mean, it’s hard to say that nice.”
Jelly Roll’s appearance is just one of many, many hurdles he had to overcome. A regular in and out of prison, first as a juvenile, then as an adult, the Nashville native is a product of a challenging upbringing, and his own mental health struggles. But by the time music industry executives began to take him seriously, Jelly Roll already had a lot of momentum in his favor.
“I’d already built such a big independent thing,” Jelly Roll recalls. “The YouTube channel had a billion views and was doing $2 million a year, and that’s not counting touring, merch, publishing, all that. There was no denying what was happening.”
Jelly Roll could have stayed independent, made a pretty penny, and not had to adhere to the opinions of anybody but himself. But his goals and dreams were bigger — much bigger — than what he was able to achieve on his own.
“I wanted radio and I wanted publicity,” he says. “I wanted to play the Grand Ole Opry.”
Indeed, Jelly Roll made that dream come true, when he made his debut in 2021, a night that remains one of the most pivotal moments of his life and career.
“I knew that night that that was gonna be home for me,” Jelly Roll says of his Grand Ole Opry performance. “When I walked out of the building, I looked at my wife and I said, ‘We’ll be coming in and out of this parking lot for the next 30 years.’”
Jelly Roll knew, even when others didn’t, that he belonged in country music, creating his own lane in a genre where he wasn’t quite like anyone else. It’s the “where-they-are-in-their-life-right-now songwriters,” like Zach Bryan and Oliver Anthony, who are now joining him in creating their own version of country music, while not trying to compete with other established hitmakers.
“We’re not the best singers,” Jelly Roll concedes. “We’re a long way from the beautiful voices of Chris Stapleton or Chris Young. It’s way more gritty what I do and what Zach does — way more pitchy. But I think it’s filling a necessary void.”
Find music and tour dates at JellyRoll615.com.