Yeah, I heard of Jelly Roll

Well now it looks like Nashville has a new toy. And really, it’s an old toy. His name is Jelly Roll, and one of his pseudo “country” songs titled “Son of a Sinner” has slowly climbed the country radio charts, provoking the usual suspects who like to pontificate about the paradigm shifts in the country saying that heavy acting and the heavily tattooed rapper turned country artist could be the next big thing. I certainly have reservations about his music. I have even deeper reservations about his long-term prospects in the country.

The first time Jelly Roll appeared on my radar was when it appeared in a Vice documentary that yours truly also appeared delving into the country rap scene. Jelly Roll has been active for over a dozen years now, previously collaborating with a Memphis rapper named Lil Wyte, the influential hip-hop collective Three 6 Mafia, and fellow Nashville-based country rapper Struggle Jennings, who is the grandson of Duane Eddy, but plays his association with Waylon Jennings after Eddy’s former wife, Jessi Colter, married Waylon, making Struggle Waylon step-grandson.

A Nashville native who grew up in the Antioch neighborhood, Jelly Roll’s real name is Jason DeFord. He put together a fairly successful underground hip-hop career from his perch in Music City, but never really interfaced with country, except for his affiliations with underground country rappers such as Struggle Jennings, Ryan Upchurch and the famous Mikel Knight.

But in 2021, Jelly Roll released an album through Nashville-based country label BBR Music, also known as Broken Bow. Called Ballads of the Broken, along with hip-hop, there’s also a bit of rock on the album, as evidenced by how the album’s lead single titled “Dead Man Walking” peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock charts. . It only reached No. 30 on the more consumer-based Hot Rock Songs chart, which tells you that BBR’s radio promotion was a big player in bringing it to No. 1.

Enter Jelly Roll’s second single from the record titled “Son of a Sinner”. It currently sits at #28 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart and #32 on the Hot Country Songs chart, again showing a gap between mainstream appeal and radio promotion. Extract recent commercial publications on national radios such as Billboard country update and Country air control, Jelly Roll and her face tattoos feature prominently in ads asking to be aired on the radio. BBR really wants this to be a success.

And as a song, “Son of a Sinner” really isn’t that bad. Jelly Roll shows a soulful voice often hidden in its hip-hop escapades, and the song finds an emotional low point, even though interspersed in the songwriting are some of those radio buzzwords such as “Ford”, “backroads”, “God,” “drink,” and “highway” find favor with country radio program directors. It’s still a bit of a stretch to call the song country, but it’s also unfair to call it bad. It’s a bit better than most of what’s played on country radio, and some of what’s played in independent circles.

In truth, when you consider the exit from the Jelly Roll side of the country rap world with guys like Struggle Jennings, Yelawolf and a few others, it certainly goes further than low-level outfits like Locash, The Moonshine Bandits and Bubba Sparxxx , and most certainly deeper than the mainstream set like Breland. My problem with Jelly Roll music is the same with Struggle Jennings. A lot of it is just… well… whining, complaining about how bad their lives are and they can’t get a break. I’m not a life coach, but maybe don’t waste your child support money on face tattoos, and life won’t be so hard.

But those who are selling Jelly Roll as the next big thing in the country should probably slow down their turnover. “Son of a Sinner” is already starting to show signs of slowing its rise on country radio. Ultimately, where it ends up mostly depends on how much promotion BBR chooses to put behind it. But after that, there’s not a trainload of other country radio songs they can squeeze out of Jelly Roll’s latest album to maintain its country relevance.

Meanwhile, Jelly Roll recently talked about working with Three 6 Mafia again and plans to release an album with the faded Brantley Gilbert later this year. Gilbert is another one of those guys whose name pops up in this mixed country/rap/hip-hop world as one of the original writers of Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” which came out in 2011 and became the biggest country song that year, pointing out that all those music pundits proclaiming a paradigm shift from Jelly Roll’s success in country are more than a decade behind. In fact, it’s the decidedly un-Bro-Country aspect of Jelly Roll’s “Son of a Sinner” that makes it interesting.

They also announced that Jelly Roll will play Bridgestone Arena in Nashville on December 9th. Yes, The Bridgestone, Nashville’s largest venue. Does the success of Jelly Roll, or “Son of a Sinner” really justify an arena show? Of course not. But that’s how the hype machine works in Nashville: You announce a big show right in the mother brain of the traditional country business, and everyone thinks you’re a superstar. Now Jelly Roll and BBR have six months to figure out how to fill the seats. They started by making at least part of it a charity for “Impact Youth Outreach”. But make no mistake, Jelly Roll is not an arena act.

I just seriously wonder what impact Jelly Roll is going to have on country music in the long run, and beyond a song or two. He’s another former rapper-turned-country artist in Ernest who seems a lot more committed, and a lot more apt to break into country music in the long run. Ernest’s super traditional song “Flower Shops” is currently #19 on country radio, and is currently #14 on the consumer-based Hot Country Songs chart. This is the sign of the organic call.

Oh, an Ernest co-wrote “Son of a Sinner” with Jelly Roll. This tells you why the track has the secret sauce to appeal to country radio and mainstream fans alike.

Long story short, those who fear that a face-tattooed rapper could become country music’s next big hit needn’t worry, and those who proclaim that Jelly Roll will revolutionize country music are pretty presumptuous. Sure, it may have one or two more successful singles, and “Son of a Sinner” may come in at No. 1 if BBR wants it with promotion. But regardless of Bridgestone’s big gig or whatever, I don’t think Jelly Roll is anything more than a rapper with a decent country radio song right now.

If anything, that should tell you how talentless traditional country is for a guy like this to waltz into the format and fall face-first into a hit. That’s the real lesson with Jelly Roll.


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