Judge a book by its cover at your own risk.
Jason “Jelly Roll” DeFord is a Tennessee native who was primarily known as a rapper before pivoting to a more-traditional singing style and catching the ear of the BBR Music group. He’s got the kind of troubled past that could toe to toe with Randy Travis’s biography, and he’s got the image (and the face tattoos) that make him look like a Post Malone clone (which apparently is what BBR was looking for?). I was bracing myself for the worst when I starting listening to his official radio debut, “Son Of A Sinner,” but instead I found a gritty tale of resilience, the ear-catching story of a man trying (but only sometimes succeeding) to outrun their past. It’s the sort of tale that country music was built to tell, and Jelly Roll does an unexpectedly good job of telling it.
Producers of Nashville, take note: The production here is the same old guitar-and-drum arrangement that you all are using, yet the sound it produces is so much more than the sum of its parts. The song opens with a textured acoustic guitar and an intriguing blend of a booming bass drum and a light-touch snare, and the only major components that get added are some deep-voiced electric axes and some spacious synth tones for some background atmosphere. The guitars feature an interesting blend of light and dark tones (the acoustic ones deliver the former, the electric ones use the latter), and although the volume is never cranked up to 11 and the minor chords are limited to the bridge, the mix crackles with an understated intensity and seriousness, driving the song forward even though its tempo is fairly relaxed. It does a nice job catching the listener’s attention and drawing them into the story, all while keeping the focus squarely on the writing. Using the same tools doesn’t mean the product has to be the exact same, and I’d like to see more producers find better ways to use their pieces as they do here.
Vocally, I would put Jelly Roll somewhere between Thanos and Cody Johnson (which is not a bad place to be in 2022), and while he struggles a bit with the flow of the song early on (which is a real surprise coming from an experienced rapper), he’s got enough charisma to push through and leave a favorable impression. His backstory makes it a breeze to feel believable in this role, and he’s got an effectively-raspy delivery that helps sell a narrator that is simultaneously world-weary and optimistic. There’s a confidence and a conviction to his performance, which pairs well with the lyrics to paint the speaker as a straight-talking, self-aware “son of a sinner” that’s trying (but struggling) to do the right thing. It’s a performance that I think a lot of Nashville’s slicker, more-polished acts would have trouble replicating, and I think it bodes well for Jelly Roll going forward: Hard-edged country artists have historically mixed repentant tracks in with their rowdy ones, and selling the former like he does here is usually the higher bar to clear.
The story here is of a narrator who is trying their darnedest to put their trouble past behind him, but discovers that it’s all too easy to slide back in old bad habits. While I’m not a huge fan of the hook, there are some seriously good one-liners here (“I’m never lonely, I got these ghosts to keep me company,” “These pills pretend to be my friend,” etc.). It does a nice job capturing the long struggle to beat an addiction: Everyone has the best of intentions, but it’s easy to fall back off the wagon, especially when the temptations are constant and the underlying issues (including the musician’s traveling lifestyle) are still present. (I have a quibble with one line, though: “If you ever wonder why we write these songs” makes it sound like he’s been doing this forever, and while in truth he probably has, it’s the first time he’s been introduced to a mainstream audience, and it makes the line feel presumptuous, like Jelly Roll thinks he’s Willie or Waylon or something.) The imagery isn’t exactly descriptive, but makes up for it with its poignancy (you can’t always see it, but you can feel it), and while the smoking and drinking that shows up in a lot of less-serious songs is here too, the picture painted here seems a bit more complete (it may be fun, but it’s also more damaging that you think). It’s a well-executed tale of someone trying to bounce back from the bottom, and it’s a tale that stands out as one that isn’t told in modern mainstream country music too often.
I didn’t expect much from “Son Of A Sinner,” but I found it to be a gripping account of life after rock bottom, and everyone involved did the song justice through less-is-more production, sharp and vivid writing, and a soul-baring performance from Jelly Roll himself. It’s the kind of song that Benjamin Franklin had in mind when he invented country music, and when we consider it beside Jackson Dean’s “Don’t Come Lookin’,” it suggests that Music Row is thinking about reviving a grittier style of music to counteract the bland sameness that the industry has been shoveling at us lately. I kind of hope there’s something to this hypothesis, because both the radio and in industry as a whole needs something to shake them out of their doldrums.
Rating: 7/10. Set aside the bizarre stage name, because the music speaks for itself.
One thought on “Song Review: Jelly Roll, “Son Of A Sinner””
I agree wholeheartedly with this review. It is a rare occasion when a song on country radio makes me say “now who is this?” And I start Googling for more information. I’ll be putting the bizarre stage name aside and looking forward to more from Jelly Roll!
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