Jelly Roll continues rolling along on his road to redemption. The 38-year-old musician looks to the future while reckoning with his colorful past, opening up in a new interview about music, drugs and becoming a father while incarcerated.
As Jelly — born Jason DeFord — gears up to drop his highly anticipated new country album, Whitsitt Chapel, the artist is featured in a new cover story for Billboard magazine. The star gets candid about his unconventional journey to the top of Nashville’s music scene, crediting his daughter, Bailee, with offering a great deal of influence on the new album.
“A guard knocks on my cell door midafternoon during lockdown,” Jelly recalls, referencing one of his many stints in prison as a teen and young adult. “He goes, ‘You had a kid today.’ I’ve never had nothing in life that urged me in the moment to know that I had to do something different. I have to figure this out right now.”
Jelly’s daughter, now 15 years old, was born on May 22, 2008. It’s one year older than Jelly was when, at 14 years old in 1999, he was incarcerated for the first time. His crimes through the years ranged from aggravated robbery to drug dealing.
Jelly was aware of the pregnancy when he went to jail, but says that “I was just irritated by it.”
He continued, “Like, ‘I’ve really f**ked up now.'”
However, Bailee’s birth ultimately prompted him to imagine new possibilities for himself, beginning with pursuing his GED.
“I spent less than 60 to 70 days in high school. I thought I was a real dumbass. I thought I was learning disabled,” he says, revealing that he passed his exam on the first try. “I walked in there and smacked that b**ch out of the park.”
After his release, Jelly met his daughter on her second birthday. Today, he has full custody of Bailee and is raising her along with his now-wife, Bunnie, whom he married in 2016. That’s the same year that he welcomed his second child, son Noah, with a former girlfriend.
Calling Bunnie “a beacon of change in my life,” Jelly credits her with helping him to gain custody of Bailee.
“You’re talking about a woman that came in and took a child that was soon to be born and a child that [we were] soon to have full custody of,” he says of his wife, who is a former sex worker and current podcast host. “I would have never got custody of my daughter without her. I wouldn’t have had the stability or the money.”
The “Save Me” singer says it was Bailee who asked him to attend church with her and her friends in recent years, which ultimately served as the inspiration for creating the songs that would become Whitsitt Chapel — which is named for the small church where Jelly himself was baptized at 14 in his hometown of Antioch, Tennessee.
“That little back-road church reminded me so much of this little church, and it was just so nostalgic because Bailee’s getting in trouble [and] smoking weed,” he says. “She’s going through what 15-year-olds go through. I went through all that. I know that’s whenever my life turned all the way worse. It started bringing up all these emotions of me being right there on that fence.”
Back in December, Jelly hit a major milestone when he sold out Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. The $400,000-plus in proceeds from that show, he says, have been donated to Impact Youth Outreach and other organizations to aid the same nearby juvenile detention center where he served time. The performance and Jelly’s story are featured in the documentary Jelly Roll: Save Me, streaming now on Hulu.
“I got baptized in here some 20 years ago and have since done nothing but go to prison, treat a bunch of people wrong, make a lot of mistakes in life, turn it around, [then] go on to be a f**king multimillionaire and help as many people as I possibly can,” he tells Billboard.
Speaking to his new fortune, Jelly also revealed the surprising first splurge he made after hitting it big financially: intensive therapy.
It’s “one of the first things I splurged real resources on,” he says. “I found [trauma] to be like one of the roots of probably my obesity, right? This isn’t a lack of discipline. I run a multimillion-dollar business. I work 12, 15, 18 hours a day. I’m a disciplined man. It’s got to be something else.”
He says he’s also investing in therapy for Bailee.
“Her father was in jail when she was born. Her mother ended up hooked on heroin and disappeared,” he continues. “I’m watching the cycle still continue. That’s another reason it’s so easy to draw inspiration from my songs: I’m still watching it in real time.”
Whitsitt Chapel is out June 2.