Country Jukebox Jury LP – Jelly Roll: Ballads of the Broken

This album came out last September and for whatever reason I didn’t get around to listening to the singer/songwriter/rapper’s record, his first to be sung through rather than rapped. Jelly Roll aka former drug dealer and convict Jason DeFord sold out the Ryman Auditorium in his home city. As per the title of his major-label debut, he makes music for ‘the lost causes and the ones that have been through something’.

Having started in hiphop, he was enthused by Craig Morgan’s song Almost Home and is making a push to country radio as a ‘country Post Malone’. That’s the moniker given to him by label president Jon Loba says; he even has the face tattoos (Jelly Roll, not Loba!). Given that he’s put out over 25 albums or mixtapes, including three in 2020 alone, Jelly Roll has plenty of music to wheel out for new fans. The label must have been encouraged by his large existing fanbase.

He already has thousands of them, given that a version of his song Save Me has over 100m Youtube views and 53m Spotify streams. ‘I spent so long living in hell’ is the key lyric in a song where Jelly Roll bares his soul. That above quotation comes from his debut at the Opry in an emotional set where he recalled going to jail and making ‘bad decisions’.

Son of a Sinner had a phenomenal first week on country radio, with the backing of Broken Bow Records. Enough people bought, streamed or download it to make him a Top 50 recording artist and it hit number 32 on the Hot Country Airplay chart. ‘I’m on the radio!!’ was the title of a video from the beginning of the year. The song is also available on a demo form as the album closer.

It isn’t just about the music with Jelly Roll, who gets his nickname from his portly figure and who tells it like it is. Using his Youtube channel, he runs his career like the Kardashians do, if I can make the comparison: he takes fans into the gym and to a store to get fitted for a suit for the Opry performance which he calls ‘the most special night of my life’.  

The other big hit from this album, his first on Broken Bow, hit the US Rock charts. Album opener Dead Man Walking is a rock song with a sticky chorus, enormous guitars, digital drum chatter and lyrics about ‘Russian roulette…I don’t have many chances yet’. His voice would fit on rock radio next to the genre’s big stars like twentyonepilots and Imagine Dragons.

The triple-time Backslide appropriately has the vocals slipping all over the note via autotune. It is hard to ignore the fact that production, vocal and lyric (‘backslide, I’m sliding back to you’) are the sort of thing Morgan Wallen has made a killing with. The acoustic-led Sober tries to add some levity to a very gloomy lyric: ‘I don’t like the person that’s inside of me’. His ‘soul is haunted’ on Empty House, tormented as he is by his past.

Over You is an example of the monogenre: music that’s a little bit rock, a little bit hiphop and full of banal lyrics (‘that’s just the way it is’). It opens with Jelly Roll taking a second painkiller, washed down with beer, to get over an ex, while there are drugs present in the chorus too. The theme continues on Hollow (‘I’m not capable of love…I cried myself to sleep’) and Even Angels Cry (‘I can’t see straight…the past I’m running from won’t set me free’).

Most of the latter song’s second verse is delivered in a coruscating rap, which will point people towards his earlier albums. I would have liked more light and shade, as shown on the Willie-referencing Mobile Home, but perhaps that’s for the next album. Ultimately this is an indie album with big budget production.

Jelly Roll’s real influence will be as a man with so many demons who finds catharsis in performing these songs in front of a paying audience every night. He will surely inspire people in that crowd to put their own pain into song.

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