The journey of Jelly Roll

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The journey of Jelly Roll

From troubled past to country stardom

June 20, 2024 -

Jelly Roll performs during CMA Fest on Saturday, June 8, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

Jelly Roll performs during CMA Fest on Saturday, June 8, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

Jelly Roll performs during CMA Fest on Saturday, June 8, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

Jelly Roll has become a fixture in the Nashville music scene with his rugged persona, unique appearance (and stage name), and original lyrics. He found himself near the top of the rock and country charts in 2022 and subsequently received the “New Artist of the Year” award at last year’s Country Music Association Awards at the age of 38, a late age for a newcomer award.

While his arrival on the music charts might seem recent and sudden, Jelly Roll’s success is decades in the making. His story is one of trauma, grief, and depravity, but also perseverance, redemption, and freedom. These themes permeate Jelly Roll’s music, connecting the listener to an authentic and personal faith struggle that is reflective and relatable for many.

“Music and crime”

Born in Tennessee as Jason DeFord, Jelly Roll grew up in an unstable home with a mother who battled addiction and mental illness and a father who worked as a bookie. His adolescence was marked by trouble with the law, going in and out of detention centers, and eventually prison between the ages of 14 and 24 for drug related crimes.

A thread of music, however, can be traced throughout all his life. During his appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast in May of 2023, Jelly Roll described his relationship with music by saying, “my only other choice in life is criminal. That’s all I’ve ever done, Joe, is music and crime. That’s the only two things I’ve ever known.”

In the same discussion, Jelly Roll described the role of church in his life and what he considers to be a tumultuous relationship with God.

Today, Jelly Roll is married and raising his teenage daughter. While it is evident through his conversation with Rogan that he continues to engage in many of the habits and trends that have stained his life, he’s able to look back on the moment that he learned he had a daughter as the turning point. That news ignited his pursuit of a music career that led him to country music’s biggest stages.

Redeeming a part of his past, Jelly Roll now uses his platform to speak out against the raging fentanyl crisis affecting much of the American youth. He recognizes the power of his story and he desires to be part of the solution in ending the deadly epidemic.

Treating God as a genie

The earliest days of Jelly Roll’s public music career centered around the hip-hop genre, but he shifted towards southern rock and country in recent years. Jelly Roll’s life choices, both good and bad, are represented well in his song lyrics, especially those on his 2023 album “Whitsett Chapel,” named after the church he attended growing up. The verses in the song “Halfway to Hell” describe the dualistic nature of his life, wrapping around a chorus that displays the magnitude of his spiritual struggle:

“It feels like I’m caught in-between
Halfway to heaven or halfway to hell
My angels and demons at war with myself
One foot in the fire and I still can’t tell
Am I halfway to heaven
Halfway to heaven or hell”

In the song “Need a Favor,” Jelly Roll describes his knowledge of aspects of faith, but his conscious decision not to participate in them unless he is desperate. He sings,

“I only talk to God when I need a favor
And I only pray when I ain’t got a prayer
So, tell me, who the h*ll am I to expect a savior?
When I only talk to God if I need a favor”

The self-awareness he offers is refreshing in a culture that often, out of ignorance, treats God as a genie. Yet it’s difficult to discern if Jelly Roll has a desire to change and submit to the God he calls on when he needs a favor.

Other top hits, like “Son of a Sinner” and “Save Me” highlight the emptiness brought by a life that is chained to addictions and vices, and, consequently, the need for something greater to step in to save him.

Praying for supernatural redemption

For Christians, one of the challenges that comes with examining the life of someone like Jelly Roll is balancing the goodness of physical redemption and the blessings that follow alongside the emptiness of those blessings apart from the supernatural redemption found only in Christ (Romans 3:21-25).

Music is simply the earthly vessel that pulled Jelly Roll out of the mire of brokenness and pain. But grace, by the blood of Jesus, is the eternal vessel that can pull anyone out of the mire of sin and death. When evaluating Jelly Roll’s life and lyrics, there is a gentle recognition of this truth but an intentional rejection of its applicability in his life remains.

You likely do not have to look far to find someone you are familiar with whose life echoes this same story. For many who grew up in the United States, especially in the heartland or the south, Christianity and religious language is infused into their identity whether they have a practicing faith today or not. Perhaps it is the widespread relatability, rather than the uniqueness, of Jelly Roll’s story and heartfelt lyrics that has driven his popularity.

As always, we should be praying—both for Jelly Roll and for whoever else came to mind as you read about his faith struggle (Romans 10:1-4). For those that relate to his lyrics, we should pray that his music can be used for redemptive purposes, sparking listeners to ask the right questions and seek out truthful answers.

More by Parker Jones

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