Don’t judge Jelly Roll by his cover

The biggest country star of 2023 performed a captivating concert for Billboard Country Live

Jelly Roll is perhaps the most authentic voice gracing country music today. Of course, he isn’t so much gracing it, as he is steamrolling over stereotypes of what it means to be “country,” in an industry where everybody claims their favorite flavor of cowboy is real country.

But a cowboy Jelly Roll is not. Still, he revealed from the stage during Billboard Country Live Tuesday night (June 6th) that at a banquet earlier in the day, he was named Billboard’s Breakout Country Artist. He was surprised by a speech at that banquet from his friend and fellow hillbilly bad boy, Ernest. But as of press time, no release with details about the award has been sent to media.

The show featured 14 songs from the various moments in Jelly Roll’s career. Guests Shooter Jennings and Oliver Steele showed up, prerequisite surprises for a Nashville one-off. Steele covered Shania Twain’s “Still the One,” while Jennings blasted the Jelly song “Love Me” with his bestie. Bailey Zimmerman and Breland were spotted at Marathon Music Works supporting their contemporary, but did not take the stage.

Jelly Roll’s path to superstardom has not been an easy one. This is the truth he speaks in his recent ABC News Hulu documentary. But it is also a truth he speaks through his music. During his hourlong set, Jelly Roll–real name Jason DeFord–showed of smokey, proudly weed-tinted vocals that belied his face tattoos and towering figure. He opened with “Halfway To Hell,” the lead track off freshly-released Whitsitt Chapel, his debut country album. What followed was a set of old and new songs, varying in raw emotional power but never straying from Jelly Roll’s core.

Jelly Roll’s journey to authentic music has mirrored Jason DeFord’s journey to reckon with his own past. Originally an artist with ties to less-than-savory characters in the “hick-hop” side of the music business, Jelly Roll went from a felony conviction and prison time to one of country music’s most gut-wrenching storytellers. Through a series of candid interviews that pair well with his vulnerable music, it seems DeFord the man has let himself be changed by hitting bottom, while the music performed under that curiously self-effacing name Jelly Roll went from hip hop to storytelling country music. Proving they are one in the same person.

Indeed, the most jarring moments during the performance were when Jelly would switch gears from a solidly country cut to an old school hip-hop tune. But the crowd has taken this journey with him, and seems just as proud of his emergence as he is humbled by it.

“A Billboard magazine cover with my white trash ass on it?” Jelly Roll said incredulously. He seemed genuinely taken aback by the mainstream’s ability to look past his face tats and frumpy mullet to see the artistically repentant man inside. That made the room swell with emotion as he began his country radio breakout “Son of a Sinner.”

But it was a viral moment in 2020 that began Jelly Roll’s shot to the stratosphere. His YouTube video of “Save Me” made the rounds very quickly, piquing the curiosity of people who might not have followed his hip hop career.

So what is causing this mass appeal for Jelly Roll? Certainly he’s not like any country star we’ve ever seen before. But that’s just it: seen. What we prejudge about his face tattoos, his aesthetic, his background all communicate to our brains that this is someone who should not be succeeding. But what about what we hear: The most authentic, vulnerable music available today. His is country music for all people. Whether they have a rough past or just a rough time. To paraphrase a song, Jelly Roll makes it okay to acknowledge we are all in the middle of a little right and a little wrong.

Matt Bailey
Matt Bailey

Matt Bailey is podcast producer and writer located in the Northeast. Since 2013, Bailey has produced more than 160 episodes of his own online radio show, Talk For Two. In 2016 alone, he interviewed Kevin Bacon, Crystal Gayle, Bob Barker, and Gilbert Gottfried, among several other stars. As a Correspondent for The Music Universe, his focus is Broadway, country music and concert reviews.