On Wednesday evening, a rapper arrested 40 times before his 23rd birthday with five consecutive top-ten singles, a multi-genre chart-topping pop-country album and an entirely sold-out nationwide tour is nominated for five Country Music Association awards.
For the artist — Jelly Roll, born Jason Deford in Nashville’s Antioch area — the explosive rise is no stroke of luck.
“Artists like myself staying true to who they are and writing candid social commentary about what’s happening right now hasn’t existed in mainstream country music since the 1970s outlaw era,” he said, sitting on a tour bus in Lexington, Kentucky, before a recent concert. “People are not surprisingly, just like they did back then, responding well to it.”
That it took Jelly Roll a quarter-century of work to find such success is as important as the road forward, which could radically evolve country music’s aesthetics, sound, style and perception.
The story a musical evolution that positioned Jelly Roll for stardom comes into focus through a series of interviews with the artist, along with, his distributor BMG Nashville’s president Jon Loba and executive vice president JoJamie Hahr, emcees including Rehab’s Danny Boone, award-winning studio musician Derek Wells and others.
‘What It’s Like’ establishes an ‘undeniable’ standard
The story can be traced back 25 years to another artist, Everlast, one of the rappers responsible for House of Pain’s anthem “Jump Around,” who recorded an eventual top-40 crossover blues hit entitled “What It’s Like.”
It helped give rise to a multi-generational trend toward fusing sounds from different genres. And Jelly Roll was listening.
In past interviews, Everlast has noted “What It’s Like” was driven by his desire to make music about “barely getting by” that used “meaningful” words delivered in a “simple” manner.
He explained to Joe Rogan in a 2019 interview he was sleeping on a friend’s couch in New York City while recording his first album since he initially left House of Pain. He began idly strumming blues chords on a spare guitar he saw lying around, weaving a story about “a man outside a liquor store begging for some change.”
“Basically, a day later, I was forced to record this magical thing that I had written the night before,” Everlast added.
Perhaps it’s noting how much more organized and intentional the music has become that highlights why, in 2023, it’s connecting in such a profound manner.
When asked about the influence of “What It’s Like,” Jelly Roll noted the top-20 all-genre Billboard charter was “undeniable.” As far as what differentiates where the sound and style have evolved since then, he notes the “Southern flavor” of trap music’s Roland TR-808 drum machine kicks and the texture of lead guitars becoming grittier and more 2000s-era-inspired fundamentally evolved the aesthetics of the genre.
“Hip-hop’s swagger is the most defining ‘cool factor’ of modern country music,” continued Jelly Roll.
Three 6 Mafia’s mainstream explosion
Jelly Roll is a month removed from having the 2006 Academy Award and Grammy-winning rap act Three 6 Mafia open for him on dates of his Backroad Baptism Tour.
He laughed uproariously when offering the reminder the Memphis-based act are forefathers of the “Southern flavor” he described. They released four top-10 Billboard 200 chart albums in the 2000s and sold over 3 million singles between 2005 and 2006 classics “Stay Fly” and “Poppin’ My Collar.”
“It’s crazy,” he said. “People forget how much songs like [2006 Oscar and Grammy-winner] ‘It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp’ became the soundtrack of mainstream American life. And for people who are under the age of 40 or younger than me — and especially those who grew up like I did — that’s the soundtrack of our childhoods and early adult years.”
Derek Wells has played on over 100 No. 1 country singles in the past decade. He said Jelly Roll’s resonance makes sense, both from a social and technical perspectives. It’s not just that drum patterns from a machine are inherently different than those played on a traditional drum kit.
“Young people who were raised on [the ubiquity] of harder, heavier music that makes the subwoofers in the backs of their cars rattle accept that sound’s urgent, youthful excitement as the commonplace expectation in popular music overall,” said Wells.
“Generationally, these people, once they became the demographic that country music targeted for sustainability, saw their loves of classic country music, hardcore hip-hop and alternative metal more readily represented in the genre — and they have and continue to listen,” Wells continued.
Country melds with hip-hop
In the two decades between 2000-2020, hip-hop and country music’s influences ran close to each other but lacked perpetually connecting fibers. Artists like Bubba Sparxxx, Cowboy Troy, Colt Ford, Kid Rock, Nelly, Uncle Kracker and Yelawolf flirted with various levels of mainstream success on either side of the spectrum.
And yes, though not explicitly there — save Nelly’s collaborations with Florida Georgia Line — midwestern-style rap cadences familiar to acts like Bone Thugs N Harmony became a part of the vocal stylings of the genre’s then 20-something male artists.
Sparxxx’s Timbaland-produced “Ugly” was important in that the pop hit blends snippets of Missy Elliott’s Timbaland-produced Indian and Bhangra music sampling 2001 classic “Get Ur Freak On” with the central Georgia-born emcee rapping braggadociously in his natural voice and cadence in a very stereotypically Southern music video.
It’s one of very few times when rap’s most potent sound of the era has blended with the most powerful variants of the Southern musical and most popular variant of the country-leaning tradition.
By 2008, another Georgia act, Rehab, experienced the slowest-growing of hits with their initially 2000-released track “Bartender Song (Sittin’ at a Bar).”
Their song’s eventual digital bar jukebox and internet-driven growth to triple-platinum selling top-40, alternative and rock chart success is the closest direct corollary to Jelly Roll’s unprecedented trajectory.
“Multiple generations of people in rural areas, who would’ve otherwise been hustling to make it, have now been inspired by seeing themselves [reflected] in places they’d never expect to see themselves. Then they bought equipment and believed they could be emcees or singers and have an avenue to success in mainstream music,” said Rehab’s Boone.
Georgia native Colt Ford’s emergence from Average Joes Entertainment, the label he co-founded with Rehab’s producer Shannon Houtchins, is also important.
For the past 15 years, Ford’s career’s intersection with numerous country stars has yielded everything from Brantley Gilbert and Jason Aldean’s takes on “Dirt Road Anthem” to working with Jamey Johnson, Montgomery Gentry and John Michael Montgomery within the first three years of his mainstream rap-to-country crossover career.
Then in 2010 Yelawolf, an Alabama-born Nashville resident who has nearly released an album that achieved the revered “five out of five mics” rating from The Source Magazine and recorded a collaborative album with Grammy-winning producer and country progeny Shooter Jennings — released his major label debut album “Trunk Muzik 0-60.”
Sustaining hip-hop’s ‘Southen flavor’
During the summer of 2023, Jelly Roll’s trio of “Waylon and Willie” mixtapes alongside Struggle Jennings a veteran country rapper who is the grandson of Duane Eddy and Jessi Colter (which makes him the step-grandson of Waylon Jennings) served as opening act for Jelly Roll’s 44-date nationwide tour.
Alongside a group of emcees, Jelly Roll and Struggle Jennings maintained incredible pressure on country’s mainstream (via millions of YouTube streams and high social media engagement) to open more broadly to sounds that America’s blue-collar underground adores.
“Once country music figured out how to get the ‘cool’ factor from the best hip-hop records right, [simultaneous to the time when rap records that sounded like them were cool], artists like me finally had the space to thrive,” Jelly Roll said.
During COVID-19’s quarantine, Jelly Roll signed a distribution deal with BMG Nashville/Stoney Creek Records.
BMG Nashville president Jon Loba said he sought to mirror another trend: the ever-so country-adjacent, decade-long success of emcee Post Malone.
Following the viral success of Atlanta-born artist and producer Blanco Brown (of chart-topper “The Git Up” fame), Loba was came across Jelly Roll when Adrian Michaels, now Vice President of Innovation, Radio & Streaming at BMG Nashville, alerted him to the video to the 2020 single “Save Me.”
“I was obsessed,” said Loba.
“Within an hour of meeting him — after already appreciating how much he had learned how to trust his singling voice as much as his rapping one — and learning how authentic his ability was to connect with the hearts and minds of anyone, regardless of their background, made me ready to mortgage the world to work with him,” he said.
For the past half-decade, BMG Nashville’s executive vice president JoJamie Hahr has watched Jelly Roll’s growth as a performer now dominant on radio, in streaming and on tour.
She described watching his evolution from an “underground phenomenon” with nearly 1 billion YouTube views already under his belt to an act now streaming on platforms like Spotify at numbers nearing 10 million plays per week, having a No. 1 hit every six months since the middle of 2022 and whose blend of “mass appeal and exposure” is providing “life-changing music” to the “heart of America” as observing a “cultural movement.”
20,000-seat venues nationwide are filling with a demographic of fans willing to save for months to watch a two-hour Jelly Roll headlining set, added Hahr.
“Jelly Roll is part of a proud moment for country music where we’re infiltrating pop culture and music’s mainstream expectation,” Hahr said.
“We are going to keep getting Jelly in all of the right rooms and then back up and allow him to tell his story and showcase the various intangibles that allow him to belong [anywhere and everywhere],” Loba added.
For Jelly Roll, however, the strategy is simple.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve always done — write songs about things people are afraid to write songs about,” he said. “Shining light on important things that get glanced over brings far more people together than pulls them apart.”