After every tour, Jelly Roll experiences a state of depression. He was unable to understand the reason behind it for a while. As a former rapper turned country singer, he believed it was due to the sudden decrease in adrenaline after being on a high for an extended period of time. However, he recently had a breakthrough in therapy.
During an interview conducted over Zoom from his residence in Nashville, Tennessee, a man who had a troubled youth filled with incarceration expresses that touring has been one of the rare times in his life where he has felt truly valuable. Despite his size, he struggled with feeling like he added no worth to any situation and only caused harm. However, during performances, he finds a sense of giving back. He is now striving to find value in his life offstage, as he sees it as a true measure of his growth.
Jelly Roll, known by both his stage name and a popular dessert, was given the moniker by his mother due to his chubby childhood. Today, he is feeling positive and highly sought after. He will spend eight hours fulfilling media obligations before traveling to San Antonio for a performance and then heading to California for another show. He expresses excitement about his busy schedule, stating that it is a wonderful time to be alive.
Earlier this month, Jason DeFord, known by his stage name Jelly Roll, received the Country Music award for best new artist and was also nominated in four other categories. This was the highlight of a successful year on the awards circuit, as he had already won three CMT Music awards. Just two days later, he was nominated for two Grammys, including the prestigious best new artist category. At 38 years old and with over a dozen albums in various genres, he is finally gaining mainstream recognition. He states, “There is something beautifully bittersweet about a nearly 40-year-old man making his way. I am the true Cinderella man.”
DeFord’s career can be divided into two distinct stages, with the release of his 2020 single Save Me marking the transition. Prior to this, he spent 15 years distributing mixtapes, promoting his own albums, and accepting any paying gigs. However, after the release of Save Me, he transformed into a genuine country star with tattoos and gold teeth, and has been hailed as the new face of the genre in a recent interview. In his own words, “the man changed and the music followed suit.”
Throughout his entire career, DeFord has consistently been open about his challenges and desire for personal growth. He has battled drug addiction, received a diagnosis of severe depression, struggled with low self-esteem, and grappled with feelings of insecurity. For a significant period of time, he experienced impostor syndrome, which has now been replaced by fears of fleeting success. In his own words, he has felt like a failure, a thief, and a hopeless case whose past continues to haunt him. His latest album, Whitsitt Chapel, is a vulnerable and emotional expression of his feelings of despair and suffering.
“I view myself as a shattered individual who is attempting to piece together the fragments of a puzzle,” he explains. “I saw the entire experience as a plea for assistance, and it was acknowledged. The music speaks to the countless individuals who have felt unheard.”
DeFord’s rise indicates that country music is expanding its reach. However, although the style of music and the artists involved may be becoming more diverse, there are certain aspects of the industry that are becoming more rigid. In a recent interview with the LA Times, Maren Morris expressed her belief that there is widespread racism and sexism within the genre, causing her to distance herself from it.
DeFord is cognizant of this friction, but he is not interested in participating in political discussions. He longs for a time when politics were not intertwined with everything. He despises the extreme divide and tribal mentality that currently exists in America. When politics becomes the only means of connecting with others, it is a sign of trouble. The situation is deteriorating rapidly.
Is there still a place for progressive music in the country genre? “Absolutely,” he responds. He mentions Tyler Childers and Sturgill Simpson as two popular artists who have also advocated for liberal issues. “Maren Morris took a risk by leaving a successful path. The fact is, country music is currently at its peak and more diverse than ever before.”
DeFord spent his formative years in Antioch, Tennessee, a working-class neighborhood near Nashville that he has referred to as “typical America”. His father was a meat salesman who also dabbled in illegal gambling, while his mother faced mental health struggles and became addicted to pain medication. Growing up, DeFord never felt at ease: he was frequently teased at school for his size, clothing, and upbringing. He found solace in music, honing his rapping skills during middle school and attracting a following. However, he didn’t know anyone who had successfully pursued a career in music. He comments, “I admire artists who say they’ve dreamed of this since they were five years old. That wasn’t my experience. I never thought I’d escape a life of incarceration.”
At the age of 13, he was sent to a facility for minors after being caught with marijuana. By 15, he claims to have experimented with a variety of drugs such as pills, cocaine, acid, mushrooms, and meth. At 16, he was tried as an adult for an aggravated assault charge after trying to steal marijuana while carrying a weapon, resulting in an 18-month prison sentence. Over the course of ten years, he was in and out of prison for various offenses, including breaking probation, failing drug tests, and possessing crack with the intention to sell.
His music was still there, on mixtapes that he handed out with the cocaine he sold, but life felt hopeless, so more time inside was hardly a deterrent. “Jail was like a high school reunion for me. You go in there, it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re still here, what’s up dude’,” he says. “The rotating door of the judicial system, it’s rough, man.”
In 2008, DeFord, then 23 years old and incarcerated, received news from a guard that he had a baby daughter with his ex-partner from a brief relationship. This was the catalyst for him to make positive changes in his life. He had two goals: to earn his General Educational Diploma (which he successfully achieved on his first attempt) and pursue a career as a social worker, determined to avoid imprisonment or violence. Additionally, he also had a passion for music.
When he reached the age of 25, he exited prison for the final time and managed to gain a significant following without any assistance from studios. He boasts, “I amassed a billion views on my YouTube channel prior to signing a record deal.”
At first, the music industry was not interested. He did not fit neatly into any one genre – too much rock for country, too country for rap, and too rap for rock. Record companies rejected him, citing his weight, tattoos, and criminal history as reasons why he would not be able to connect with audiences. He was told that no one would want to listen to a 400-pound man singing melancholy songs, as it did not align with the current trends in music.
In 2020, a turning point occurred with the release of “Save Me,” a raw plea for assistance with his struggle against addiction. The music video gained significant traction on YouTube, racking up hundreds of millions of views, and caught the attention of record labels. As a result, he has achieved two hit albums: “Ballads of the Broken” and “Whitsitt Chapel.”
Earlier this year, DeFord released a documentary called “Jelly Roll: Save Me” in collaboration with ABC. The film follows his journey of redemption and highlights his strong connection with fans, especially young offenders and recovering addicts. Many of these individuals credit his music for saving them or helping them through difficult times. DeFord appears to pour his heart and soul into every word he sings. His live performances have been compared to church revivals and 12-step programs. Fans often hold up signs honoring loved ones lost to addiction. DeFord admits that he often cries on stage, particularly when acknowledging those in the audience who are in recovery or supporting loved ones. He becomes emotional even just discussing this aspect of his music.
Is it challenging for him to handle this situation? “I don’t see it as negative at all,” he explains. “I believe that God has given me the opportunity to be helpful and serve others.” What does he attribute to the strong reactions people have to him? “Unfortunately, there aren’t many people who write the type of songs I do or openly discuss the topics I do, even though they are relatable.”
DeFord generously gave back to the community by donating the earnings from his sold-out show at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, which amounted to approximately $400,000, to a nonprofit organization that supports at-risk youth. He also constructed a recording studio within a youth center. DeFord believes that during his own childhood, there was too much emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation. He believes that at the age of 16, regardless of the crime committed, what young people truly need is love and support, not harsh discipline.
DeFord continues to experience consequences from his previous conviction. Due to being convicted of robbery, he is still unable to vote, possess a firearm, or volunteer at many charities. Traveling is also difficult, as he had to cancel a show in London. He has been communicating with the governor of Tennessee, and although a pardon would greatly impact his life, his focus is on advocating for larger changes in the criminal justice system. “I want to contribute towards finding a solution, as I have personally witnessed the issue at hand.”
DeFord is advocating for action to be taken regarding the fentanyl crisis in the US. He is aware of the alarming statistic that fifteen people die every hour due to this issue in the country. He personally knows thirty individuals who have lost their lives as a result. The thought of his friends who are still struggling with addiction causes him to experience survivor’s guilt. He carries a phone filled with tragic stories from people he used to know, asking for large sums of money or material possessions. It is ironic to him that others assume he is capable of simply giving away houses. Reading these messages only adds to his feelings of guilt and creates a cycle of shame. However, it is also painful for him to distance himself from these individuals.
Some of his efforts to assist have been hindered by an overloaded rehabilitation system. “I recently attempted to fund a man’s rehabilitation, but we contacted every rehab center in the country. The best one we found, even with my available resources, had a two-week waiting period before admission. What is he supposed to do for two weeks? Die? I am unable to remove him from his addiction, and he may perish right here on the ground.”
Currently, DeFord continues to use marijuana and alcohol, but has eliminated the harmful drugs from his life. He acknowledges the importance of respecting those who have successfully completed a recovery program and are completely sober. DeFord had to make the difficult decision to give up substances such as lean (a drink containing codeine), pills, and cocaine. It was a matter of prioritizing his own well-being and learning to love himself.
He currently shares a home with his wife, Bunnie DeFord, also known as Bunnie XO. She used to work in the sex industry on the west coast but now hosts the popular Dumb Blonde podcast. He also lives with his 15-year-old daughter, Bailee, from a previous relationship. He also has a son from another previous relationship, born in 2016, who lives with his mother. He finally feels like he belongs and has a sense of purpose. He expresses, “I have never felt more listened to, acknowledged, appreciated, and loved than I have in the past year.” The most significant change for him is that he knows he has transformed into a different person.