Backroads, Bad Apples & Bigger Stages: Jelly Roll Does It For Outcasts Everywhere
Jelly Roll performs at MGM Grand Garden Arena September 1, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

If you were to walk down Fifth Avenue in New York City and ask 100 people if they know of Jelly Roll, veteran manager John Meneilly reckons 90 wouldn’t have any idea. 

The same is probably true of Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles or Market Street in San Francisco.

But those places aren’t where Jelly Roll’s people are. Not yet anyway.

Jelly Roll’s people are in places like Southaven, Mississippi, where he grossed $726,944 on 9,464 tickets at the BankPlus Amphitheater July 28, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports.

He’s been packing them in on his “Backroad Baptism Tour,” in places like Maryland Heights, Missouri, and Burgettstown, Pennsylvania. 

To understand the singer/songwriter — and to understand his appeal to the Just Folks who love him — you have to understand where he came from.

You have to understand Antioch.

It’s a suburb of Nashville proper — understanding the vagaries of consolidated city-county government is not necessary for this journey — and it’s not that it’s dangerous, necessarily, or poor or working class. It’s just that its edges are rough enough that it doesn’t fit into the lies Nashville’s been telling about itself since the coastal cultural critics discovered the city a decade or so ago.

If Nashville is the glass offices and cozy songwriting cottages of Music Row, Antioch is a gritty corner service station where someone might sell you their rap mixtape (Jelly Roll did this, in a not-so-long ago past life). 

If Nashville is Broadway’s neon canyon with branded bars offering a verisimilitudinous honky tonk experience to bachelorettes and bros, Antioch is a windowless beer bar flouting the smoking ban and offering halfway decent karaoke three times a week.

And if Nashville is megachurches and the gargantuan headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention, Antioch is a brick-and-clapboard church that’s a busted heat pump away from insolvency.

A church like Whitsitt Chapel, which lent its name to Jelly Roll’s latest album, a disc that’s spawned two CMA Award-nominated tunes and brims with the kind of open and honest expressions of faith and sinfulness that pre-glitz country music used to relish.

It’s an album of Saturday nights and Sunday mornings — there’s a song called “Hungover In A Church Pew,” for heaven’s sake — and it’s “real music about real people with real problems,” as Jelly describes it.

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MAP OF THE WORLD: Jelly Roll performs on “Fox & Friends” at Fox News Channel Studios on Aug. 14 in New York City. Photo by John Lamparski / Getty Images

Jelly — his real name is Jason DeFord — knows about real problems. The 38-year-old has struggled with addiction and is off the harder stuff now (he still partakes in marijuana and alcohol). He’s done time in both juvenile and adult facilities, including a stint for aggravated assault, a conviction that lingers on his record and that’s made international touring difficult. He’s had friends and family overdose and he’s had others in prison and plenty of others just going through the normal struggles of paycheck-to-paycheck life, if they even know where that paycheck is coming from. The difficult details of his journey are laid out in the Hulu documentary “Jelly Roll: Save Me,” released in conjunction with the album.

His face is a map of the world. Or at least his world. Literally. Unlike every other person who has ever topped the country charts, Jelly Roll has face tattoos, each bit of ink telling a story, large or small. 

One of those tattoos is an apple core – an allusion to the “Bad Apples,” the sobriquet for his ardent devotees.

“Jelly spent years and years touring in a van all across the country, selling 40, 50 tickets a night and he built this core fanbase and that can be attributed to where he is right now,” his agent, CAA’s Hunter Williams, said. “It was hard work, a great work ethic and never giving up. … I came on board in 2019 and he’d already built a core fanbase  — like Dave Matthews Band or Phish or Kenny Chesney. People were tailgating and there was something special there.”

This central group of fans — the core of the Bad Apples, if you like — had followed Jelly for years, from those days spent hawking mix tapes, which he started doing in 2002, and doing features for other Tennessee rappers, like Three 6 Mafia and Yelawolf (he considers both acts inspirations; both now open for Jelly Roll), through his evolution into rock and, eventually, into what is almost straight-ahead country music.

Whitsitt Chapel, his seventh full-length, and its predecessor Son of a Sinner earned Jelly country radio play and CMT placement. But it was viral moments during the pandemic that vaulted him to where he is now. And he’s not unusual — in music or elsewhere — in that the pandemic was a period of self-reflection and resultant creative fulmination.

And for Jelly, there was an added inspiration: his daughter, Bailee, now a teenager. She was born during one of his stints behind bars. He learned of her arrival from a guard. And that was, he says, his “road to Damascus,” when things started to turn for him. She drew him into the church again.

“She was going to a little backroad church,” he tells Pollstar. “And I haven’t been to church in a long time. When I finally was home for a Sunday I went to check out the church and show support for my daughter. It brought up all these old feelings of when I was her age and I also went to a little church in Antioch.”

He’d written 70 or 80 songs. And two — “Church” and “Hungover In A Church Pew” — really stuck with him. When he wrote them, he didn’t think they’d make his next album.

“Then I realized that is the album: the album is my journey through 25 years of a very up and down relationship with God and the church — so we wrote the album from there,” he said.

And that’s Whitsitt Chapel. It’s authentic and raw and it’s all the hard parts of faith. All the questions a sinner has about his suitability for salvation. About demons and angels wrestling and warring inside of broken people who just want to be better, just a little bit. About people who’ve found themselves hurt and broken and, yes, more than a little high or hungover in a church pew.

It’s weighty stuff and the songs are woven with nuance and truth. Sonically, he may have little in common with the outlaw singers of the 1970s, but thematically he’s right alongside.

“I think it’s important to speak for the forgotten. My goal has always been to be a voice for the voiceless. Because for so long I felt voiceless,” he says. 

“But this is a tale as old as time: there have always been musicians who stood up and wrote about the things other people are afraid to write about. Those were the men and women who inspired me. … People singing songs for the broken. The people who live between being right and wrong.”

CRS 2023 New Faces of Country Music Dinner
Jelly Roll performs onstage at the New Faces of Country Music Dinner during CRS 2023 at Omni Nashville Hotel on March 15, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Danielle Del Valle/Getty Images)

Williams says the velocity and trajectory of the tour compared to past loops Jelly has done is proof the message and the music resonates. In 2021, Williams says, Jelly was averaging 2,500 per night. “Backroad Baptism Tour” is averaging 15,000 — “arena numbers,” he says, despite the tour being mostly in sheds — and sold out in advance in most places.

“The crazy thing is, the further you get out of the city, the more familiar folks are. Geographically, he’s resonating everywhere and on a global level. It’s kids and their parents and grandparents. It’s literally every age demographic. His focus is trying to support people and help them overcome adversity through his music and you bring it to a live format, it’s elevated to a religious experience,” Williams says. “He’s preaching positivity. Fans are rejoicing and honestly it’s a place for a lot of these folks to get away.”

Jelly also makes a habit of visiting people who can’t get away to see his shows — those behind bars or in rehab or in homeless shelters. 

“More than anything I just want to love on people in those kinda situations. I know how   rough the transition is when you’ve lived one way for so long. God has blessed me so much I just want to bless as many people as I can along the way as well,” he says. 

To that end, his show at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena in December benefitted mentoring non-profit Impact Youth Outreach with the goal of funding a recording studio in the Davidson County Juvenile Detention Center and five $10,000 scholarships.

That concert — which grossed $660,596 on 15,298 tickets for a very affordable average price of $44, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports — and a performance at Nissan Stadium during June’s CMA Fest (Nissan Stadium overlooks the aforementioned juvenile detention center) were special ones for Jelly.

“I vividly remember how big of a deal it was when they announced the Bridgestone coming and the stadium. … This town was a relatively small city when we were young and getting an arena and a stadium was like us coming into our own and going from being a small city to a big town. My mother and father were both born in Nashville so they were very prideful people when it came to the city and they instilled that same mentality in me from a young age. I take pride in being a local. I have damn near lifelong memories associated with these venues. My father took me to games and events when I was a kid and I have taken my daughter to games,” he says.

The Bridgestone show was where the production and visuals for the tour, developed by Montreal-based Lüz Studios, came together.

“The entire experience feels like a revival,” Meneilly says. “We designed it to feel like a revival. We leaned into it as we were building to that Bridgestone show, which became the production on the road. It was obvious it was a revival. It’s healing. It’s joy. It’s emotion and it was pretty easy to see where we should go with the show with the marketing.”

Religious vocabulary permeates discussions about Jelly, not just because the album deals so heavily and honestly with faith, but also because Jelly himself has the same charisma as a preacher. Meneilly says Jelly reminds him of Bono in that way — high praise for a frontman from his manager, but when it’s Meneilly — who was Jay-Z’s right-hand man before founding WITH Management — it’s coming from a guy who’s seen the power of a charismatic and influential artist.

Live Nation Vice President of Country Touring Patrick McDill sees the parallel with the pulpit too.

“What surprised me about that [Bridgestone] show and having seen some of the other earlier shows was that connection that he had with his fans. You know he spoke about things they are living through or someone close to them was living through and it’s the hope and the redemption that he preaches,” McDill said.

McDill’s Live Nation colleague, tour promoter Andy Messersmith, says it was apparent from early in the relationship that Jelly Roll had that special something that makes artists into stars and phenomena.

The 50th CMA Fest Nightly Concerts at Nissan Stadium Day 2
Jelly Roll performs onstage for night 2 of the 50th CMA Fest at Nissan Stadium on June 09, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images for CMA)

“We knew about him and we saw what he was doing in the smaller venues, but then the opportunity came up to book him in one of our premier boutique amphitheaters at the Toyota Music Factory in Dallas and that was around August 2021. That show was a massive success and we saw what happened there and we knew he was ready for the bigger stage,” he says.

The success both on the road and the radio has pushed Jelly Roll to the top of bills. He’s on the second line at April 2024’s Stagecoach festival, but the expectation is he’ll headline every other festival he plays in ’24.

The next tour will almost certainly be arenas and the difficulties with overseas touring and Jelly’s arrest record may be solved. Williams’ analytics show Jelly is popular not just in the Anglophone countries where country music does well — Australia and Canada — but also in Europe and even in Latin America, a market that country acts often find difficult to crack.

But the core is still the Bad Apples.

“It is a Rust Belt, working class, blue collar story and they should own it and he’s their guy and he wants to be their guy, but people on the coasts can relate to it as well,” Meneilly says. “His story is one of hope and redemption and forgiveness. It’s everything the U.S. is supposed to stand for.”