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Interview: Jelly Roll talks Country music paradigm shifts & Working with Brantley Gilbert

Paradigm shifts, genres blurring and musical freedom – welcome to Jelly Roll’s world.

Jelly Roll
Credit: Don Henson

Nashville native Jelly Roll has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Country music, that comes across the moment you spend any time at all with him. However, it was Rap and Hip-Hop that called to him as a child growing up and since 2010 he’s made an impressive number of albums, EPs and projects.

Jelly Roll is also open about his struggles with addiction. In his teens and early twenties, he was in and out of jail. As a teen, he was charged with robbery and at 21, he was charged with possession with intent to distribute. A recent interview he did with Bobby Bones, possibly the best interview I’ve heard in my 6 years as a listener to that show, laid bare Jelly Roll’s struggles with drink, drugs and crime and he also talked with raw openness about how this struggles extended to his mother and the the mother of his daughter and how endemic addiction was in the community he lived in in Nashville.

2020 saw a paradigm shift (which is a word he uses frequently with good reason) in Jelly Roll’s career. He credits the release of ‘Save Me’ from his ‘Self Medicated’ album as the point in his career where he started to actually sing and 2021’s ‘Ballads of the Broken’ album saw ‘Dead Man Walking’ hit the number spot at rock radio whilst ‘Son of a Sinner’ went top 30 at Country at the same time. We were thrilled to grab 20 minutes of time with Jelly Roll to talk all about his career and lots more besides.

Thank you for your time today, it’s fabulous to touch base with you. (Lots of laughter ensues as the name ‘Luke Bryan’ appears on the zoom call screen and is quickly changed. We also talked a bit about Jelly Roll’s love of British boxing and snooker too!)

It was a combination of hearing ‘Son of a Sinner’ and then your interview on the Bobby Bones show that made me really intrigued by you as both a person and an artist. You must have had some great feedback after that interview?

Oh dude, it was unreal. I owe so much to Bobby for having me on and talking about my life and career in the way that we did. Him allowing me to tell my story in full…..I’m so grateful for that, he gave me every tool I needed to be able to do that.

I was still trying to convince people that I belonged in Country music and Bobby was very much like, ‘Well, just come in to the show and explain to us why.’ It was such a blessing and I made a lot of friends on the show there that day. The interview is now up to about a quarter of a million views on Youtube now!!

What tickled me pink the most was the next day. I was listening to the show and Bobby and Amy and Lunchbox were talking about the interview, still. It had a huge impact on me, obviously, but I think the guys on the show were also impacted by it too.

How do you deal with the reaction of fans of your early music that is more Hip-Hop based and fans of Country music who want to shut the gates to you as well? It feels like you might be caught in the middle of two sets of genre expectations!

Let’s start with my fans. They are the most important thing in the world to me. I don’t make music for commercial viability or success, I make music with the intention of hoping to help someone or speaks to someone.

My mother was someone who struggled with both addiction and mental health problems. I watched music help her sort through her life and so I want to make music for people to do that. My fans know that my message is the same, no matter how I package or present it, right? No matter what envelope I put it in you’ll get the same message from me – ‘Son of a Sinner’ is not a far cry from a song like ‘Save Me’ and ‘Save Me’ is not a far cry from the song ‘Creature’, which is a rap song, as far as the core message goes.

As long as I am diligent about making sure that I’m writing songs that help people I think my fans will travel with me, no matter what I do. Country music is in my soul, man. I’m as southern as you could possibly be, I’m as Country as catfish and collared greens! (laughing) I could sing ‘Moves Like Jagger’ by Maroon 5 and it would still sound like a Country version!! (laughing)

I knew that I would always end up where I belonged, I just didn’t know that it would take ten years of being in and out of prison and seven Hip-Hop albums to get there! (laughing)

You are such a prolific songwriter. You’ve released something every year for the past 12 years. Do you work damn hard? Do the songs come easy to you? Is it a mixture of both?

It’s a mixture of both, man. I do consider myself the hardest worker in the room. I also believe that sometimes the songs write themselves as well, you know? If you show up enough times and wait the songs will come, but you need to put the time in to do that.

One of my problems with ‘the establishment’ is that these publishers go, ‘OK, we’re going to insert hit songwriter A, hit songwriter B and hit songwriter C in a room tomorrow between 11am and 1pm and they are going to write us a hit song that we will pitch to another artist who had nothing to do with the creation of the song’. I don’t care if you put the best three songwriters on earth together in a room, if the magic doesn’t show up you’ve wasted your time. I don’t control when the magic shows up, sometimes it shows up at three in the morning! (laughing) With my song, ‘Save Me’, I wrote the melody and the chorus at 4am in the morning after they came to me in a dream!!

To me, I am always writing a song, that’s the nature of the beast. My wife gets mad at me at times when we’re having a serious talk and I’ll go, ‘Man, that would make a good song or song title!’ and I’ll reach for my phone to make a note of it! (laughing)

You wrote ‘Son of a Sinner’ with Ernest, who is a great writer. How did you come to work with him?

Me and Ernest have known each other forever, dude! He’s a local Nashville boy, just like me. There was a time when me and Ernest would freestyle rap together in a basement passing around pipe, you know? (laughing) We’ve known each other a long time.

The fact that we’ve both ended up together here on Music Row is nothing short of amazing. He was number 18 and the charts this week and our good friend Mitchell Tenpenny was number 19 and they went to the same school, they are both local boys. Tenpenny’s brother, Rafe, is like Ernest’s best friend, so it’s really cool for us local boys to see. You know, forever, Nashville didn’t have a lot of Nashville-born songwriters so to see Ernest, Tenpenny, Chris Young, Conner Smith and myself having some success is amazing.

Your Nashville success started to come with your last two albums when you really started to sing for the first time. What prompted that change?

Yes sir! I tell people that I would have went Country ten years ago if someone had told me I could sing, right? (laughing) I thought I was an alleycat, you know? I would sing the choruses on some of my early songs but I would rap the verses because I wasn’t ready to squeeze my butt cheeks together and go all in back then!

It was ‘Only’ which was on 2017’s ‘Addiction Kills’ album that was the beginning of me thinking ‘I’m going to put a singing song on every album I do from now on.’ The next album had 2-3 singing songs on it and I just went from there as my confidence levels went up but where it really went to the moon for me was on ‘Save Me’ in 2020. I sung that one from the bottom of my soul and it was so well received. Brent Smith, the lead singer of Shinedown, who I think is one of the greatest vocalists ever, reached out to me after ‘Save Me’ and said it was one of the best vocal performances he’d heard in the last five years. Luke Combs reached out, Shay Mooney too and when guys like that are giving you compliments you have to know that you are doing something right! (laughing)

You had ‘Dead Man Walking’ hit Rock radio and ‘Son of a Sinner’ hit Country radio at the same time. What does that say about the changing nature of the music industry and people’s listening habits, do you think?

Dude, I think it’s the beginning of a new sense of people becoming tribal to artists rather than being tribal to a genre. For the longest time, people have just been tribal to a genre. When I was a kid if you wore a Heavy Metal shirt to school on a Monday you wouldn’t be wearing an Alan Jackson shirt on Friday, you know?

Now, my daughter will wear an Arianna Grande shirt one day and a Nirvana shirt the next and be in a Sam Hunt shirt by the end of the week and nobody will say anything. Watching Morgan Wallen’s success has been a great proof of that – he’s been one the biggest streaming artists on the face of the planet, without radio for a long time too, last year. People backed him, he was their horse and goes to show that tribalism towards artists rather than genres is very much a thing right now.

We are living through a paradigm shift in the music business right now. This will be something people will talk about in 20 years, a clear moment of change, of how there was a shift in how music was consumed as we move from that model of the 70s and 80s to something very different.

TikTok?

Man, I’m obsessed with the industry and how it works and TikTok is now part of that. I was looking at the numbers the other day and I realised that three of the five people who I first noticed in the numbers last week were kids that had had songs that blew up on TikTok. Bailey Zimmerman is going to radio, he’s got that ‘Rock and a Hard Place’ record, which went viral on TikTok. Nate Smith’s record got picked up, he went viral on TikTok too. That is interesting to me.

Shout out to my label, Broken Bow, because I feel like we wrote the book on that because I would argue Elvie Shane was one of the first guys who went from TikTok to number one in the charts with ‘My Boy.’

I’m watching the landscape here and it’s really interesting to watch TikTok beginning to inform Country radio. Jason Aldean and Brantley Gilbert would have been TikTok stars had they been coming through now, they built up buzz and noise about themselves in their local areas first, which helped them make it through to Nashville and Country radio, just in different ways. TikTok is just a different tool to be able to do that.

Let’s talk about Brantley Gilbert. You and he have a new song out together – ‘Son of the Dirty South’. Tell me about that.

Brantley called me and said, ‘Listen, dude, I know you are getting famous for this singing thing but I got a song that I want you to rap on.’ I was, like, ‘Yes sir, Mr Brantley Gilbert, whatever you say!’ (laughing)

We’re talking about doing an EP together, we’ve written a few songs together now. I got a couple of tracks that, God willing, he’ll end up cutting for his next record and I think I have a couple that we wrote that might end up on my next record too. The more that happens, the more that I think we should just put out a joint project. In Hip-Hop, it’s no weird thing that two rappers would come together and put out a 6 song project as a one-off. Rock music, that happens too. How many times has Corey Taylor from Slipknot done side projects and collaborations? I don’t understand why Jelly Roll and Brantley Gilbert can’t put out a record – it’s what I love about HARDY’s ‘Hixtape’ projects.

I would love to see an album featuring Jelly Roll, Ernest, HARDY and Morgan Wallen – like one of the old Outlaw projects from the 70s and 80s, you know? We’ve been to the golf course a few times together and we’re a hell of a foursome – I consider that my crew, but we need to get in a room – I told HARDY that just the other day.

Check out Jelly Roll’s ‘Ballads of the Broken’ album and his song ‘Son of the Dirty South’ with Brantley Gilbert on all platforms right now.

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