By Holly Smith
Whether he’s Jesus, Jester or one of country's biggest new stars, Jelly Roll can certainly say he’s 100% himself.
1. Halfway To Hell
3. The Lost
4. Behind Bars (with Brantley Gilbert and Struggle Jennings)
5. Nail Me
6. Hold On Me
7. Kill A Man
8. Unlive (with Yelawolf)
9. Save Me (with Lainey Wilson)
11. Need A Favor
12. Dancing With The Devil
13. Hungover In A Church Pew
Sinning is relative, and so is success. Perhaps not so much for Jelly Roll, who’s been doing both in absolutes. Having won three CMA awards, sold out Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, made his Opry debut and hit his first number one at country radio, that’s the success covered, and growing.
Now for the sinning. Country purists might consider his new album, Whitsitt Chapel, sacrilege with its liberal use of snap-tracks and its references to Outkast, Eminem and even fentanyl, but there’s probably not been much coming out of Nashville in the last 10 years that they wouldn’t.
At least with Jelly Roll, a former addict and drug dealer, you believe the sinning. When he sings “most of my friends are behind bars” on a collab with Brantley Gilbert and Struggle Jennings (which brings 'No Diggity' to mind) you get the sense that he really is talking about the big house and big misdeeds, rather than a night in the county jail for getting a bit out of hand after the pool match.
Thank goodness, because in the hands of someone less believable this album would fall flat. Everything feels ominous, from its opening audio of a fired-up preacher, to frenetic banjo on Miranda Lambert co-write 'The Lost'. Even on love songs the struggle remains supreme, his adoration for a woman competing with his adoration for the bottle on 'Hold On Me', or talk of blue lights and final nights on the smooth 'Kill A Man'. Standout track 'Church' brings a reflective and bittersweet melancholia.
'Unlive', featuring rapper Yelawolf, is a good lesson that perhaps the genres have more in common than you’d think: your origin story matters, because how well you can tell it is going to allow you to transcend it, but telling it well requires that you can never really leave it behind. Luckily Jelly Roll knows how to tell a good story because it’s those that save us when the snaptracks do start to grate after a while.
Closer 'Hungover In A Church Pew' is pleasant but it’s easily the song that sounds, if not the least like Jelly Roll, then the most like it was written for another artist. Who is the real Jelly Roll? On 'Nail Me' he mixes his metaphors, seeing himself as part Jesus, part Jester. The Jester works better, but whether he’s Jesus, Jester or Jelly, at least he can say he’s 100% himself.
Whitsitt Chapel is out on June 2nd via BBR.