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The Upward thrust of Jelly Roll: How a Tattooed Ex-Con Discovered Nation Stardom

It is an not going luck tale, however it is the type nation track loves to inform.

The identify Jelly Roll handiest turned into a family identify over the previous few years, however virtually somebody can empathize along with his struggles. After a afflicted adolescence and a couple of incarcerations as a young person, the Tennessee local were given motivated to raised himself and keep on with his goals — and that led him to stardom.

On the 2023 CMT Tune Awards this yr, Jelly gained Male Video of the Yr, Male Leap forward Video of the Yr, and Virtual-First Efficiency of the Yr, for his breakout track, “Son of a Sinner.” At Wednesday’s 2023 CMA Awards, he used to be nominated 5 instances, scoring a win for New Artist of the Yr. And he is a favourite for a number of nominations on the 2024 GRAMMY Awards, which shall be introduced on Friday.

“It used to be the nod of approval I prayed for,” Jelly Roll advised ET of his CMA nominations — that are voted on by means of his nation track friends. “I knew that we had been promoting tickets, I knew that fanatics had been with us, I knew that we had people who had been getting moved by means of the track, however I wasn’t in reality certain what Nashville considered me, you understand?”

Scott Kirkland/Disney by way of Getty Pictures

Here is a glance again on the winding highway that led Jelly Roll from teenage antisocial to nation track celebrity.


Born Jason Bradley DeFord in Nashville in 1984, a tumultuous upbringing led Jelly Roll to an early lifetime of crime that landed him in prison earlier than he may just even graduate highschool. He used to be first imprisoned at age 14, and welcomed his first kid whilst nonetheless in the back of bars.

“A guard knocks on my cellular door midafternoon throughout lockdown,” Jelly recalled in an interview with Billboard previous this yr. “He is going, ‘You had a child these days.’ I have by no means had not anything in existence that recommended me within the second to understand that I needed to do one thing other. I’ve to determine this out at this time.” 

The beginning of his daughter, Bailee, in 2008 pressured issues into standpoint for the singer, who made up our minds to pursue his GED in an try to higher himself.

“I spent not up to 60 to 70 days in highschool. I assumed I used to be an actual dumbass. I assumed I used to be finding out disabled,” he stated, revealing that he handed his examination at the first check out. “I walked in there and smacked that b**ch out of the park.”

He first attempted his hand on the track trade in 2003, although he began out in hip-hop along with his first unencumber, The Undeniable Shmear Tape. A string of collaborations, mixtapes and additional incarcerations adopted, till Jelly made the pivot to rock and nation track, in the long run touchdown himself at the Grand Previous Opry level in November 2021.

“I cried like a toddler in entrance of 12 strangers. I had simply signed my report deal, so I did not even in reality know my report label,” he recalled of the instant forward of his fourth efficiency in April 2023. “Nevertheless it used to be a part of the rationale I signed my report deal – I had two necessities in my deal. I used to be like ‘You gotta promise me you can get me within the native newspaper, then you definitely gotta promise me you’ll get me to the Grand Ole Opry.’ I needed to no less than end up that I’m who I say I’m, even though they by no means convey me again, that is high-quality. However simply let me be the fellow who will get to do it.”


Jelly’s first primary label album, 2021’s Ballad of the Damaged, landed him on each the rock and nation charts, but it surely used to be probably the most album’s handiest really nation tracks, “Son of a Sinner,” that put him at the map. Launched as a unmarried in March 2022, the track hit No. 1 on Billboard’s US Nation Airplay chart, and impressed the singer to transport even additional towards the rustic sound for his 2023 follow-up, Whitsitt Chapel.

To this point, the album has spawned two hit singles at the nation charts, “Desire a Desire” and “Save Me,” the latter of which options some other primary nation celebrity of the instant, Lainey Wilson.

And it is no wonder that the duo used to be probably the most nominated artists at this yr’s CMA Awards. Wilson used to be the end nominee of the evening, with 9 nods, whilst Jelly used to be the top-nominated male artist, with 5.

“Dude, I don’t believe I even awoke anticipating a nomination, so after they advised me I used to be the most-nominated male, I virtually pooped myself,” he joked to ET throughout rehearsals for the display at Bridgestone Area this week. 

In all seriousness, Jelly admitted that the popularity from nation track friends used to be a big second for him and his profession.

“It used to be the nod of approval I prayed for,” he shared. “I knew that we had been promoting tickets, I knew that fanatics had been with us, I knew that we had people who had been getting moved by means of the track, however I wasn’t in reality certain what Nashville considered me, you understand?”

“It makes me need to get emotional,” he added. “I am in reality getting teary-eyed. For me, it used to be in reality like, you understand, I am welcome right here and it used to be in reality cool.” 

However the adventure’s simply starting for Jelly — and he is already made some majorly well-known pals alongside the best way, like Dwayne Johnson!

“I am not making this up. The Rock used to be taking note of Jelly Roll track when Spotify numbers stated handiest 30,000 folks had been taking note of Jelly Roll,” the musician advised ET again in June. “He is in reality been with me from the start. I do not percentage what that tale is, however he has a tale that the track used to be there for him at a second when he wanted it. And that used to be superior to listen to from him.”

“That is … seven, 8 years in the past even and we’ve got saved in contact,” he persisted. “He used to be the primary particular person to congratulate me on my Grand Ole Opry debut; first particular person to congratulate [me], and once I performed on the Ryman [Auditorium]. The primary DM I were given once I introduced [the historic] Bridgestone [Arena show in 2022]. I imply, those pinnacles in my profession. He is at all times the primary particular person in my messages.”


Along side his skilled luck, the singer’s circle of relatives existence is bettering as smartly. These days, Jelly has complete custody of Bailee and is elevating her along side his spouse, Bunnie, whom he married in 2016. That is the similar yr that he welcomed his 2nd kid, son Noah, with a former female friend. 

Calling Bunnie “a beacon of alternate in my existence” in his Billboard interview, Jelly credited her with serving to him to realize custody of Bailee. 

“You’re speaking a few lady that got here in and took a kid that used to be quickly to be born and a kid that [we were] quickly to have complete custody of,” he stated of his spouse, who’s a former intercourse employee and present podcast host. “I’d have by no means were given custody of my daughter with out her. I wouldn’t have had the steadiness or the cash.” 

Talking to his new fortune, Jelly additionally printed the unexpected first splurge he made after hitting it giant financially: remedy for each himself and his daughter.

“Her father used to be in prison when she used to be born. Her mom ended up addicted to heroin and disappeared,” he persisted. “I am observing the cycle nonetheless proceed. That’s one more reason it’s really easy to attract inspiration from my songs: I’m nonetheless observing it in actual time.”


As he continues to paintings on himself, there may be a number of folks within the track trade that need to paintings with him. He used to be attaining out to Put up Malone and Zach Bryan on the 2023 CMA Awards this week, and stated his inclusion and popularity on the awards display proved how the doorways to the rustic track scene are extra open than ever.

“Nation track is on fireplace,” Jelly Roll gushed to ET forward of the awards display. “The spectrum of nation track and the web of nation track is wider than it is ever been. Extra individuals are making a song it and making a song it other than they ever sang it. Extra individuals are observing it than have ever watched it. Nation track is the brand new pop.” 

Even after profitable New Artist of the Yr, then again, Jelly used to be nonetheless suffering to imagine the glory his friends had bestowed him.

“I did not suppose I had an opportunity, guy,” he advised ET behind the scenes after the win — and his viral acceptance speech. “It used to be wasn’t even in my thoughts, to be fair.”



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