Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Can Jelly Roll Heal the Broken Soul of America?

On one level — let’s call it the superficial level — the recent and rapid rise to stardom of Jason DeFord, the country singer and rapper known as Jelly Roll, might seem surprising.

At 38 years old, very heavy and sporting a constellation of facial tattoos, Jelly Roll is no Taylor Swift. He is a recovering addict who whose life has been riddled by drug-related loss — a theme that dominates his music and defines his stage persona. He openly swears, drinks, smokes weed and has a history of criminal convictions and substance-abuse problems. Yet Jelly Roll hasn’t become a star in spite of those things, but because of them. And that popularity is as revealing about the condition of the American soul as it is about the artist himself.

After a moderately successful career that began more than a decade ago in hip-hop, Jelly Roll arrived on the charts, airwaves and arenas in 2023 as though he were the Beatles. As of last week, his single “Need a Favor” is No. 1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Airplay chart and is on Country charts too. On tour, he frequently plays sold-out shows. All this with a gospel-and-rap-inflected brand of country that plumbs the depths of addiction, regret, grief and helplessness.

When Jelly performs, fans sob, smile as they cry, hold up pictures of people they’ve lost. A Variety review of the concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium that constituted the launch party for his breakthrough album “Whitsitt Chapel” described the show as “a 12-step meeting, a revival, and a party all at once.”

On this level, Jelly Rollmania makes perfect sense. In a country riddled with crises — the opioid epidemic, mass incarceration, the mental health crisis and gun violence among them — Jelly Roll’s music is an expression not just of musical tastes, but also of a desperate national hunger for healing and recovery.

Disclosure: Jelly Roll’s music makes me cry, too. I am a long-term recovering addict who will never quite heal. I got sober in an Alcoholics Anonymous clubhouse in Nashville circa 1990, where people traded aphorisms and wisdom that sound a lot like the lyrics on “Whitsitt Chapel.” Neither my alcoholic father nor my alcoholic grandfather made it to 50. I lost a brother and two stepbrothers to addiction and mental illness: Bob was killed in a drug-motivated shooting in 1984. Adam died by suicide, overdosing on heroin, in 1991. Jim, a teenage addict, was sentenced at 18 to five years for armed robbery (aggravated robbery is also one of Jelly Roll’s convictions), got some prison tattoos himself and started smoking crack when he got out. He died in his 50s, his body compromised by hepatitis, diabetes and heart disease.

After each death, I got a tattoo, to try to permanently mark myself as them. After each, I had a bad descent into drugs and alcohol, in part as an expression of solidarity. I was trying to insist that I was no different from and no better than my brothers and didn’t deserve anything more than what they got. Each time, I stopped thinking for a time that I deserved to be alive. These are the sorts of experiences that Jelly Roll is bringing to the charts: very common devastating experiences of betrayal and survivor’s guilt and despair that, despite their prevalence, are not usually made public. If I spoke of these things in the past, it was most likely in a “meeting,” under an assurance of anonymity.

“Whitsitt Chapel” is an excellent example of how country music sounds now: There are traditional touches in the instrumentation and vocals, but the drum tracks are often electronic and the voice sounds like it could be lightly auto-tuned. It’s the sound that has driven Morgan Wallen’s and Hardy’s records to the top of the charts this year. Wallen’s “One Thing at a Time” spent months at No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart this year and shares many themes, especially addiction, with “Whitsitt Chapel.”

But Jelly Roll is a completely different kind of artist, a sort that country music hasn’t seen in a long time (maybe David Allan Coe from back in the day). He spent his teenage years in and out of juvenile detention facilities around Nashville. And as the ABC News Studios documentary “Jelly Roll: Save Me” makes clear, he is still struggling. He prays and tries to get better, too. And he connects with addicts, recovering addicts and people who love addicts in a way that, I think, no one in popular culture up until now really has, or perhaps similar to the way Nan Goldin used her experience as an addict to transform the world of high art.

Jelly Roll has recorded versions of his signature song “Save Me” with Eminem and Lainey Wilson, which gives some sense of his musical range. It speaks compellingly from the point of view of an addict addressing the people who are still trying to love him. I hear my brothers saying it. I hear myself saying it, circa 1985 or again in 2005.

All of this drinking and smoking is hopeless
But feel like it’s all that I need
Something inside of me’s broken
I hold on to anything that sets me free

My life has been shaped by survivor’s guilt, one of Jelly Roll’s major themes. I helped dig my brothers’ graves at my parents’ farm in Virginia (where I’m writing this), and I lay in each of them looking up at the sky, thinking I should be getting buried too. I’m not alone in that, I see again.

In his song “Unlive,” he sings,

I’ve seen fentanyl
Sneak in the deep and then sink in and end it all
I learned early that that’s life
I seen dreams turn to ash at the end of a glass pipe

Listening to his music, I feel my not-aloneness. In Jelly Roll, millions like me seem to have found a preacher, and popular music seems to have found a much-needed dose of both reality and spirituality.

In the documentary, Jelly Roll says, “I’ve been a drug addict, I’ve been a loser, I’ve been a stealer” and “My friends in recovery, the first thing they learn is that you gotta find something that matters more to you than you … There’s something out there that can help us.”

I like a good Taylor Swift tune as much as anyone, but it’s Jelly Roll I turn to for my musical salvation these days. Even as I struggle from day to day, it’s good to know I’m not the only one still desperate for reconciliation and connection.

Crispin Sartwell is a former philosophy professor, country music writer and the author of “How to Escape: Magic, Madness, and Beauty” and other books. His guest essay “What’s So Good About Original Sin?” appears in the anthology “Question Everything: A Stone Reader.”

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