Before his rise to the top of the country music scene, Jelly Roll never thought a career in music could be a possibility.
In a new wide-ranging interview with The New York Times’ “Popcast (Deluxe)” show, Jelly Roll, born Jason DeFord, recalled growing up in a “middle-class neighborhood, but I didn’t know one person on my street with a career.
“I didn’t know anything else. Everybody did drugs. Nobody had a career, nobody had a job. People that had jobs were really blue-collar, hard-working jobs. It wasn’t one that you’d look [at and think], ‘That’s what I wanna do.’”
Jelly Roll explained that his father, “my hero,” was a meat salesman who started his own business. But, even then, he thought, “If that’s the most flattering thing happening in this neighborhood, I gotta figure something out. I just was like, ‘I know it’s going to take money to get out of here.’ And the most obvious way to make money was what was happening in the neighborhood.
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Jelly Roll told The New York Times’ “Popcast (Deluxe)” show he never thought he could make a career in music. (Scott Legato/Getty Images for iHeartRadio)
“And it’s no excuse. But it’s a real issue, it’s just a thing, and it’s just kind of what I went to.”
The 39-year-old, who grew up in the suburbs of Nashville, has been open about his past addiction issues and time in prison on aggravated robbery and possession with intent to sell charges.
“I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it wasn’t for what I went through. I think it empowered me. I think it gave me my voice,” he told Fox News Digital during the 2023 CMAs. “It taught me a lot about overcoming. It taught me a lot about changing and the ability to change.
“I was a horrible human for decades, and to just be able to turn that around and give a message in the music and help people … and just try to give back as much as I can in every way I can is very indicative of where I came from and how important it is to me to always reach back.”
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Jelly Roll’s music was inspired by a blend of country and folk artists, like Johnny Cash, Bob Seger and James Taylor, as well as Three 6 Mafia and hip-hop duo UGK.
“I would say that initially I did it as a means of therapy,” he told “Popcast (Deluxe).” “I didn’t think you could make money from it at all. I didn’t think that was an option.”
He realized it was a possibility after watching other groups in school sell music and the first time he won $1,000 during a freestyle rap battle.
Jelly Roll rose to fame with his song “Save Me,” released in 2020 during the pandemic, and quickly went viral. A year later, he made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry, followed by his first No. 1 song on country radio, “Son of a Sinner,” in 2023.
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Jelly Roll, born Jason DeFord, said he initially pursued music “as a means of therapy.” (Theo Wargo/Getty Images for iHeartRadio)
“Son of a Sinner” earned Jelly Roll three 2023 CMT Awards, male video of the year, male breakthrough video of the year and digital-first performance of the year, and he picked up new artist of the year at the CMA Awards in November.
Jelly Roll’s journey and connection with fans (and tendency to get emotional) was also highlighted in a Hulu documentary, “Save Me.”
He told “Popcast (Deluxe),” “I am empath for people, period,” and joked, “I didn’t cry until I was 34 years old. I can’t quit crying now.
“I think I’m just getting out years of emotion of my life is what’s happening. I’m still shaking 30 years of horrible decisions and being a less than attractive human. I was mean, I was rude, I was disrespectful, I was entitled, I was angry. Everybody owed me. I had such a sour spirit. I was mad at the world. It was everybody’s fault but mine.
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“I learned later that it was me, and I’ve accepted that. It was always me, it’s always been me. And I got to be accountable for everything I do. But equally, the exchange of energy with people is this, I just want to be useful.
“At this particular moment, because not everybody’s always going to want to care to hear the story, not always care to hear the music the way that it’s presented at the time, and I have a moment right now where I’m connecting with people. And we’re sharing an exchange of energy, and we’re kind of overcoming these dark things together through this music and through this story and through this journey.
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“And I want to look back at this era more than anything and go, ‘Man, that was the wildest five years of my life.’ I want to look back and go, ‘Man, we might have helped millions of people through that. … We might have actually touched and helped to some degree millions and millions of people.’”
Transitioning from hip-hop to country also helped his voice, literally and figuratively.
He told “Popcast (Deluxe)” through country, “I found my voice. Because I think the bars were always there and the writing was always there, but I don’t think I had a really cool rapping voice. I think that’s what held me back the most.”
Jelly Roll told “Popcast (Deluxe)” through country, “I found my voice.” (Noam Galai/Getty Images)
The “Son of a Sinner” singer continued with a slight laugh, “I don’t think I have a good singing voice. I don’t think I’m a good singer. … I think I am a convicted singer, and I think you hear that.”
The “conviction” of his words and performance ties back to his desire to not only look ahead but always remember where he came from and who he feels he represents.
“I’m never letting what’s happening with the blessing of this thing working for me take me away from who I know I’m actually speaking to and for,” he said.
Jelly Roll told Fox News Digital at the CMT Awards in March 2023 about his work to bring music to jails in Tennessee through a program called Impact Youth Outreach, saying at the time, “It’s become an annual charity for us. What we’re going to do for at-risk youth in Nashville, I’ve got a five-year plan that’s going to blow people’s minds.”
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Jelly Roll said he’s focused on giving back and told Fox News Digital last year, “I’ve got a five-year plan that’s going to blow people’s minds.” (John Parra/Getty Images for Audacy’s Riptide Music Festival)
As he told “Popcast (Deluxe),” his next album will focus on “a lot of my own dark demons, because jovial as I am in real life, the music is a reflection of … there’s very, very dark hallway between my ears. It’s the scariest place on earth for me. I dread going to sleep at night. The ghosts are there.”
But it’s not all darkness.
“I’m going into my eighth year of marriage, and I’ve never been more in love. So, it’s like I got a couple love songs on the new album that are really true to who I am,” he added.
Jelly Roll has been married to wife Bunnie XO (Alyssa DeFord), since 2016. The couple share his two children from previous relationships.
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Jelly Roll has been married to his wife, Bunnie XO, since 2016. (Taylor Hill/WireImage)
While Bunnie is completely sober, Jelly Roll admits he still enjoys the occasional drink and indulgence in marijuana.
As he explained to People in December 2023, “I never really had a problem with alcohol, so I’ll still have a cocktail, but very, especially this year, very seldomly. Like, special night kind of stuff, like the night of the CMAs, of course we partied. But I just try to stay away from drugs.”
The father of two is also focusing on his health through weight loss.
“The more that this thing grows and the more people that we help and the more that I start to deal with my past and the things that have affected me and my own mental health struggles, the more that I have a will to live,” Jelly Roll told Fox News Digital in November at the CMAs.
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“I’ve been losing weight, slowly but surely. I’m about 45-50 (pounds) down coming off tour, walking into the CMAs. I’m drinking less than I’ve ever drank, and I feel incredible. I’m drinking water like a fish. I’m getting it right out here. I want to touch people as long as I can.”
With the upcoming Grammy Awards, Jelly Roll has plenty of positivity and gratitude to focus on.
“I’m never going to be too cool to be a fan of something,” he told “Popcast (Deluxe).” “I think it’s so important to still get excited about stuff.”
The “Wild Ones” singer became visibly emotional and choked up as he shared the moment he called his mother to tell her he’d been nominated for two Grammy award — best new artist and best country duo/group performance.
“I called my mother at the same time of all this. … It was me getting to call a woman I’ve called from jail, a woman I’ve called homeless, a woman I’ve called addicted, a woman I’ve had to come sit down and tell her I have a drug addiction. A woman [where] I had to come tell her I was running from the police. A woman I’ve had to call with all this horrible news.
“I got to call her and say, ‘I just got nominated for two f—ing Grammys.’ To me, that is the craziest call you can make.”