Jelly Roll‘s new album, Whitsitt Chapel, is named after his childhood church. The Nashville native was baptized into that church when was 14, the same year he was also arrested for the first time, kicking off a decade of life in and out of jail. So when his daughter, Bailee, was 14, she also wanted to get baptized, an experience that inspired what became Whitsitt Chapel.
“I had started thinking about where I was at when I was 14,” Jelly Roll tells Grammy.com. “I’m going to a little church, too, on a little back road on a hill, there’s just these little parallels. Bailee experienced and dabbled in marijuana for the first time, I caught her recently. Around the same age, I was dabbling in marijuana and trouble. It was just reflective. And then you start thinking about redemption. Outside of religion, the idea of being able to be redeemed is just a great idea.
“The idea that who we were is not who we are is so powerful,” he continues. “At that moment, I was like, ‘I want to write a conceptual album, that kind of outlines my journey of religion, my journey of spirituality, my journey of redemption, my journey of wrongdoings.’ [It’s] my take on all these things from a 14-year-old kid getting baptized at Whitsitt Chapel to the 39-year-old man that just watched his 14-year-old get baptized.”
Jelly Roll had a transformative experience as he watched his daughter’s faith unfold, but he isn’t ready to latch onto a specific denomination, or become a regular church attender — at least not yet.
“I’m really, really, really kind of against religion,” Jelly Roll admits. “I’m not very religious at all. But I definitely believe in spirituality. I had this thought: how I look at church and how I see church now is different than I have ever seen it. I realized that it’s a bunch of people going to a place as an attempt to build community, seek forgiveness and be better … This is an incredible concept, right, that people go here with the idea of doing better, being better, and community. And looking at that as an adult — because I had a long time I was mad at the church, I think they kind of depicted Jesus wrong at times — but understanding and going back to it, I see what the spirit of it is.”
Jelly Roll had a sudden, and fierce, welcome to country music, with his record-breaking, No. 1 debut single, “Son of a Sinner.” He followed that up with “Need a Favor,” which begins with the line, “I only talk to God when I need a favor.” It’s an idea that was born when Jelly Roll was sitting in a church pew, feeling a disconnect with the music that was being sung.
“I was sitting in the back of a church one day and listening to worship music,” he recalls. “And just not being able to relate with it and where I am with my walk and spirituality. You look at it from that perspective, and you’re like, ‘What is my connection, how would my song to God sound?’ And I feel like it’s, ‘I only talk to God, when I need a favor. I only pray when I ain’t got a prayer.’ The third line in [‘Need a Favor’], to me, is the most powerful line, ‘So who the hell am I, who the hell am I to expect the saving?‘ Just think about the word ‘expect’ in that line, the entitlement of that.
“It was just being honest about how I view the church, and then there’s my personal walk with God, and they’re definitely different,” the three-time CMT Music Awards winner remarks. “So to me, it was trying to create that music with that spirit.”
Jelly Roll, who previously said he hopes Whitsitt Chapel inspires people to go to church, has a feeling that there are a lot of people like him, who walk a fine line between those who are struggling, but still manage to get themselves up and keep going, again and again.
“I wrote these songs for anybody that’s dealing with the duality of life … It’s always about that somewhere between being right and wrong, because I think that’s the exact place I live in,” Jelly Roll acknowledges. “I know my heart’s pure. I know my spirit’s right. I also know that I make really politically incorrect jokes. And party sometimes, and I’m a little silly and outrageous. But I also know that my heart is to be a man of service and to help people. So I write for those kinds of people, the struggling poet of the broken man. Always trying to be the voice for the voiceless.”
Jelly Roll’s Save Me documentary is streaming now on Hulu. He will embark on his Backroad Baptism Tour on July 28, 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. Find Whitsitt Chapel and all of Jelly Roll’s music and upcoming shows at JellyRoll615.com