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, 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. We were lucky enough to grab our interview with him this time last year too. You can read that here.
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 to the top at Country radio at the same time. Debut Country album, ‘Whitsitt Chapel’ arrives in a hail of expectation and one listen will be enough to convince you of this artist’s unique perspective and original contribution to the genre. It’s a raw, honest and powerful listen, more melodic than I think any of us were expecting but no less impactful in what it has to say and quite simply stunning in its execution.
Cynics and gatekeepers will accuse Jelly Roll of trying to force his way into Country music and other naysayers will see the religious imagery scattered throughout the songs on ‘Whitsitt Chapel’ as being a device used to play to the southern fan base he is trying to appeal too but to go down that path is both lazy and a mis-understating of the man and the artists’ journey. The album opens and closes with the fervent, frenzied urgings of a preacher and that redemptive narrative continues throughout, imbuing the album with a hopeful spirit and resilience that elevates the songs on offer.
Opening songs ‘Halfway to Hell; and ‘Church’ ( a HARDY co-write), both find Jelly Roll thankful for where he is in life in right now. The former, a melodic song with one of the catchiest choruses on the album, finds Jelly Roll ruminating on the duality of being caught somewhere between heaven and hell whilst ‘Church’ has a kind of mid-tempo Aldean meets Tyler Farr vibe as we find Jelly Roll going to ‘church’ on a two lane road in his car on a song that holds a mirror up to our own attitudes and behaviours.
That kind of introspective soul searching and gratitude for the present day can be found in spades all over ‘Whitsitt Chapel’. ‘Hungover in a Church Pew’ finds Jelly Roll looking at his lifestyle choices whilst ‘coming down on a Sunday morning.’ Plaintive guitars augment the acoustic underbelly here but there’s a power in the story and a very southern, redemptive feel to the lyrics. ‘Dancing with the Devil’, meanwhile, sees Jelly Roll channelling his Rock side as he describes himself as being ‘on the edge of just losing control’ on another examination of addiction and crossing the line. That look at the darker underbelly of southern life is nowhere more in evidence than on ‘Unlive’, one of ‘Whitsitt Chapel”s most powerful moments. Supported by Yelawolf on this track, Jelly Roll spins a tale of a single mother doing what she can to keep her head above water, ‘turning tricks on a Tuesday’ and ‘falling in love with the powder’. It’s a kind of white trash soap opera about not being able to ‘unlive’ where you are from. Powerful, impactful and very, very real, ‘Unlive’ finishes with Yelawolf coming in hard on the final third in a segment that almost leaves you breathless.
In amongst the darkness, however, redemption reigns supreme on ‘Whitsitt Chapel’. ‘Behind Bars’, a song Jelly Roll shares with Brantley Gilbert and Struggle Jennings, carries a kind of vibe found in a song like Brantley’s own ‘Bottoms Up’. It speaks to Jelly Roll’s time in prison but also has a famous Country music double meaning about alcohol addiction too. ‘Hold On Me’ sees Jelly Roll exposing us to the devil on his shoulder as that duality between heaven and hell comes into play again. ‘I might be holding you,’ he says to his wife, grateful for her support and love, ‘but she’s got the hold on me,’ he admits, battling his demons and addictive tendencies. Gratitude reaches a nadir on the album in the form of ‘Kill a Man’, a bluesy, Eric Church style track that could be the sleeper hit on the ‘Whitsitt Chapel’ in terms of being very radio friendly and not too emotionally in-your-face like a lot of the songs here. It’s a love song with a haunting female backing vocal as Jelly Roll sings his thanks for finding salvation in amongst the darkness of his life. Uplifting and very impactful, ‘Kill A Man’ is everything modern Country music stands for right now and deserves a life outside outside of the confines of the album. Let’s not forget ‘Save Me’, either. Lainey Wilson guests here on a song about two lost souls crashing together and clinging on for dear life. If the storytelling doesn’t get you on this track then I suspect you might be dead inside.
The best song on ‘Whitsitt Chapel, however, is the simply stunning ‘The Lost’. Co-written with Miranda Lambert and Jesse Frasure, ‘The Lost’ is an anthemic song with a dark edge about ‘finding your kind of people.’ It’s an inclusive, relatable beast of a song that will speak to many people’s experiences and existence as Jelly Roll sings about finding Jesus, ‘with the lost more than the found.’ To appreciate the song you need to buy into Jelly Roll’s story without being cynical and standoffish about him, I’m there, sign me up! He’s even written a song (‘Nail Me’) on this album anticipating his response to those gatekeepers who don’t buy into what he is dong which is a scathing attack on those holier than thou cynics and traditionalists who will judge him because he’s dared to make music before now in other styles and in other genres!
‘Whitsitt Chapel’ is a triumph. I’d say, alongside Brandy Clark’s recent self-titled release, that we now have two albums pushing to make the Grammy long list for Country album of the year. It’s not always an easy listen but there’s a spirit and a resilience that carries you through the album’s more uncomfortable moments. It’s an album that is way more commercial, in places, than I was expecting and yet way darker too. Jelly Roll lays bare his soul and invites you to hold a mirror up to your own behaviours in his quest to be a better man, husband and father. The binding narrative of redemption that runs through this album ties the songs together in a way that makes the album almost like a single story, a concept album, if you will, and the power of Jelly Roll’s storytelling and mix of styles is both thrilling and original, bringing a unique voice and presence into the Country genre. A thrilling ride, a seat-of-the-pants listen, ‘Whitsitt Chapel’ is a dark investigation in the recesses of human behaviour – thank god the story seems to have had a happy ending!
Tracklist: 1. Halfway to Hell 2. Church 3. The Lost 4. Behind Bars 5. Nail Me 6. Hold on Me 7. Kill a Man 8. Unlive 9. Save Me 10. She 11. Need a Favor 12. Dancing with the Devil 13. Hungover in a Church Pew Record Label: Stoney Creek / BMG Release Date: Friday June 2nd Buy ‘Whitsitt Chapel’ now