There was a time when an artist like Jelly Roll (the nickname for Jason DeFord) would’ve never had a chance at country music success, let alone country radio success. Yet, as country music itself has opened up to wider ranging sounds and stories more so than anytime except from about 1987-1992, here we are with Jelly Roll making a lasting impression with his brand of modern music that just (mostly) fits within the wide format. His acceptance is notable on more than just the music because his artist name and his physical appearance and tattoos would’ve been nonstarters in many quarters of country music (and still isn’t some places, just see “Nail Me” on this album). That Jelly Roll has crossed over into country music is another thing that usually has country music industry and fans going “what?” But we’ve accepted Darius Rucker, Kenny Rogers, Conway Twitty (among others) and the key to that acceptance within the industry (and by it’s most ardent fans) and as it is here: genuine sincerity within the format and reverence for it’s past and since Jelly Roll (Jason DeFord) is from Nashville’s suburb Antioch, he certainly knows and reveres country music, even if he was making southern fried hip hop and rock before “Son Of A Sinner” broke at country music radio.
“Halfway To Hell” kicks off Whitsitt Chappel and damn if it isn’t the right song to introduce new country music listeners to Jelly Roll and his brand of confessional country music. Honesty reigns supreme on this record and he’s not going to tell you right or wrong, only where HE went right or wrong and how he lives, hopes to live and where he hopes to find redemption. The honesty flows through the entire album with confessionals like “Church,” “Hold On Me” “Kill A Man,” and “Need A Favor,” the latter his second hit single at country radio after his last hit “Son of a Sinner,” the song from the previous album, “Ballads of the Broken which brought Jelly Roll to national attention after years of grinding in the rap and hip hop worlds.
Blessed with a honeyed yet gritty voice, Jelly Roll once thought he couldn’t sing and once the pandemic hit, he released the honest and different (for him) “Save Me,” a song which became the turning point in his career. Self-written, the song is highly relatable to anyone who has been through the struggles Jelly Roll has been through (from juvenile crime to addictions to substances to weight issues to depression), it’s a real song and it’s revisited here with a stunning duet version with BMG Nashville label mate Lainey Wilson turning the song into an even more brilliant moment. Their voices blend beautifully together and it’s bound to become a touchstone moment later this year (it’s already been performed at the ACM Awards) when award shows want both artists to appear. “She” is a song which could be seen as a song about a partner but really it’s about the woman who gave Jelly Roll his nickname, his mother. She’s suffered many of the same things he did, particularly substance abuse and depression.
The acceptance of Jelly Roll within country music is refreshing because the music is highly relatable in this ever fragmented world and honestly, this is music. You either like it or you don’t and what the singer looks like while singing the songs shouldn’t matter one iota. It doesn’t for me and Jelly Roll’s Whitsitt Chappel is one of the year’s best bodies of work.