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'Save Me' puts Jelly Roll on the charts

By Alan Sculley
Photo of Jelly Roll by Ashley Osborn

It’s a bit ironic to know the song that saved Jelly Roll’s music career is called “Save Me.” The ballad seeped in despair is getting a second life as a featured track on Jelly Roll’s new album, “Whitsitt Chapel,” as a duet with Lainey Wilson. 

“Save Me” first appeared in a stark acoustic guitar-and-vocal version on Jelly Roll’s 2020 independently released album “Self Medicated,” and the success the man born as Jason DeFord is enjoying now can be traced back to that song.

“For lack of a better word, ‘Save Me’ went viral,” Jelly Roll said in a mid-July phone interview. “It was undeniable. I had built a pretty good career. Keep in mind I had a billion views on my YouTube show. But I couldn’t get it, I was missing that one song that made people go ‘Oh, OK, this guy can do it all.’ I think ‘Save Me’ was that.”

Soon Jelly Roll was getting meetings with multiple record labels. He said the labels had plenty of ideas for his music, but it wasn’t until he met with Jon Loba, president of BMG Nashville, that he heard what he wanted to hear from a label.

“The cool thing was from go, Loba and everybody in the office sat me down and said the biggest thing we want from you is to do what you’ve been doing. It was awesome. I had complete creative control,” Jelly Roll said.

“Save Me,” however, wasn’t the song that put Jelly Roll on the radar of country and rock audiences. First came “Dead Man Walking,” a robust rocker from his first album on BMG, 2021’s “Ballads of the Broken,” which topped “Billboard” magazine’s Mainstream Rock Airplay chart and pointed to Jelly Roll’s potential to cross genres. Then a rootsy acoustic ballad from that album, “Son of a Sinner,” topped the magazine’s Country Airplay chart and spent a record-setting 28 weeks atop the Emerging Artist chart, which tracks the most popular developing artists across all genres.

Now “Whitsitt Chapel” is out, and he is starting a lengthy, highly anticipated tour headlining outdoor amphitheaters. Jelly Roll is doing his best to make sure his show lives up to the expectations.

“Knowing we have a chance to touch so many people, we’ve spared no expense,” he said of the show, which will feature not only new songs but selections dating back as far as to 2013. “I’m bringing tons of lights, video screens. Our goal is to kind of bring a mixture of a hip-hop show, a rock show, a country show and a little bit of a backroad tent revival.”

It’s quite a turn of fortune for someone who grew up on the streets of the working-class Antioch neighborhood of Nashville, did drugs and spent parts of his teens and 20s in jail for offenses ranging from robbery to drug dealing.

It was during one of those stints behind bars, though, that Jelly Roll, 38, was spurred to break his cycle of dead-end behavior. Informed by a guard that he had just become a father to a newborn daughter, he set his sights on making something of himself. Having begun making mix tapes in his teens, he decided that music was his ticket to a better future.

Around 2009, Jelly Roll began releasing a steady stream of indie albums, mixtapes and singles. His early music was predominantly rap and hip-hop, but as time went on, he began to broaden his sound.

“Ballads of the Broken” offered a preview of where Jelly Roll is now taking his music, as it spanned country, rock, pop and hip-hop. “Whitsitt Chapel” offers a similar cross-genre appeal as it touches on country (“Save Me,” “Nail Me,” and “Church”), muscular rock (“Halfway to Hell” and “The Lost”), hip-hop (“Unlive”) and songs that blend those styles (“Need A Favor,” which is currently a top 5 country single) with raw and emotional lyrics that continue to touch on his past struggles, but hint at the redemption he has started to attain.

It took some time and effort for Jelly Roll to find the direction of the album, as he set aside more than 70 songs after he realized only two of those songs – “Church” and “Hungover in a Church Pew” – were calling to him.

“I said, ‘Man, these two songs kept kind of putting their hands up to me, ‘Church’ and ‘Church Pew,’” he said. “Then I started thinking how God had kind of brought me to these two songs out of 70, the two I kept thinking of. And I was like, ‘That’s it. I’m going to write an album called ‘Going To Church.’”

“And my producer, Zach Crowell, sat me down and said, ‘What was the name of that church you went to?’ (I said) ‘Whitsitt Chapel,’” Jelly Roll said. “He was like, ‘You write songs that nobody else in this town could sing because they’re so personal to you.’ He said ‘Anybody in this town could have an album called ‘Going To Church.’ There’s only one person in this town who could have an album called ‘Whitsitt Chapel.’ That was the birth of the ‘Whitsitt Chapel' album. Me and Zach Crowell scratched everything but those two songs and started from there.”

Jelly Roll will be performing at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center on Thursday.

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