Jelly Roll Shows Jon Bon Jovi His Sweeter Side

Jelly Roll

Jelly Roll wears Leather Jacket and Ring Harley-Davidson. T-shirt Denimcratic. Necklace King Baby.

Jason DeFord wasn’t supposed to make it out of Antioch, Tennessee. As a mixtape rapper with a criminal record, the artist known as Jelly Roll bounced around the southern rap circuit for years, battling both emcees and addiction. It wasn’t until the 39-year-old musician shifted his focus to country that he found his voice, singing openly about the pain that destroyed him. Now, he’s a symbol of salvation and success to millions of fans, one of whom is none other than Jon Bon Jovi.


WEDNESDAY 11:30 AM MAY 1, 2024 LA

JELLY ROLL: What’s up, Mr. Bon Jovi, baby?

JON BON JOVI: [Laughs] How are you? Did you just get out of bed?

JELLY ROLL: Man, I’m in the studio in L.A. this week. They write different out here, dude.

BON JOVI: Were you with Ryan [Tedder] yesterday?

JELLY ROLL: Yeah. Thank you for finding the time to do this with me.

BON JOVI: I was so happy to. I hope you got the note I sent you.

JELLY ROLL: It’s hung up at the house!

BON JOVI: It was really special to get to hang out with you that night. I hope to continue this relationship. And congratulations man. You’re on fire. I’ve been watching from whence you came, and how your voice has changed. Not your singing voice, but the storyteller in you is evolving.

JELLY ROLL: Yes, sir.

BON JOVI: It seems that you’re coming to this place of peace right now. Everything the writing, the production, what it is you’re saying-is in such a good place. I hope you feel as good as I think you do.

JELLY ROLL: I feel even better. You’re reading it dead-on. I’m feeling comfortable in my voice, in the songs I’m writing, and I’ve never been more clear on who I’m singing to.

BON JOVI: Who are you singing to?

JELLY ROLL: Middle America. Hardworking, back-sweating, blue collar people. I realize now that if I go to a basketball game–like, they invited me to the Clippers game tonight–very few people sitting in the bowl will know me, but every person that works in the arena will. That brought so much clarity to my songwriting. Also, between me and you, I’ve taken my health seriously for the first time in my whole life.

BON JOVI: I’m sure that makes you feel better—not only your body, but your mind.

JELLY ROLL: Oh, man. I didn’t know you could think this clearly. [Laughs] I quit drinking as much, I eat a lot better, work out a little bit—dude, it’s amazing.

BON JOVI: It’s good to see, because you want to take care of your health for your kids and your wife, and good health will allow you to have more fun onstage. You’re doing it by diet and exercise?

JELLY ROLL: Yeah, I’m just walking two or three miles a day, getting in saunas, doing cold plunges.

Jelly Roll

Sweatshirt and Sweatpants Tommy Hilfiger. Necklace and Bracelet Ice Box. Ring King Baby.

BON JOVI: Cold plunges?

JELLY ROLL: They’re so brutal, dude. But I’ll do 30 minutes in the sauna first, just bust one of those nasty good sweats so it doesn’t feel as bad. And I drink tons of water. It’s helping my singing voice a lot, too. We fly so much, you know how this business is. You’re always three waters and a day of sleep behind.

BON JOVI: Most definitely. This is the first headlining arena tour you’ve done, right?

JELLY ROLL: Yes, sir. I did amphitheaters last year and a couple of small-market arenas.

BON JOVI: So you know that toll. It’s a bitch, and I’m going to bet my ass you ain’t got no tape. It’s that voice and that microphone.

JELLY ROLL: Yes, sir. We’re going to sink or swim out here, baby. [Laughs] And we sing the same way, too—with everything we’ve got.

BON JOVI: Exactly.

JELLY ROLL: You got any quick tips for sustainability?

BON JOVI: If I could be the Ghost of Christmas Future, I would tell you that all of the stuff that’s coming at you so fast will eventually confuse you, so don’t feel bad about asking for help, whether it’s from Bunnie [Jelly Roll’s wife] or professionals or from guys that have been down the road before. Because one thing I didn’t realize with this voice problem that I ran into was how many other guys have had it and never talked about it. But when you feel all alone, you’re not. Anything you’ll go through, you’re not the only guy that has. That’s a huge thing that I learned in my career. Is Nashville still home for you?

JELLY ROLL: Yes, sir.

BON JOVI: Were you born and raised there?

JELLY ROLL: Yeah. I grew up in Antioch. Couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. It was actually the first thing me and Tedder talked about yesterday. I was like, “I love

L.A., man. Every time I come out here I feel great, but I don’t think I love it enough that I could ever see myself living out here.” I’m still a little too Southern. I need to be able to hit an old empty back road every now and then.

BON JOVI: I went through that phase, too. I had a house out in Malibu 30 years ago, and it was so far from places like Henson Studios because of traffic. Getting to a meeting or a studio session back in town, you had to leave an hour and a half because of traffic. So L.A. wasn’t for me.

JELLY ROLL: You’ve always been an East Coast guy, right?

BON JOVI: Yeah, I tried that West Coast thing, but like you, I knew to go home. I felt that L.A. was, “How big are you now?” They’re always looking over your shoulder for the next big guy in the room, and then you get caught up in that game. I’ve seen too many people get eaten up by that. Guys that are no longer with us as a result. That was ugly, so we went home. I saw that you eloped—you did like I did, you went to Vegas.

JELLY ROLL: That’s the way to do it, man.

BON JOVI: I was at Graceland Chapel 35 years ago yesterday. I had a day off on the New Jersey tour, I was in Los Angeles, we had just played three nights at the Forum. I had the number one album, number one single, I opened up my window, and there’s a billboard of the five of us. I’m like, “This is fucking rock star life. Come on, let’s go now!” She was like, “Are you crazy?!” I go, “Yeah, let’s go now.” Didn’t tell anyone, and our taxicab driver was our witness.

JELLY ROLL: Y’all just went straight to Vegas right then?

BON JOVI: Took a little puddle-jumper plane and got back before anyone knew it.

JELLY ROLL: We went to a Deftones concert with my buddy Yelawolf, and we walked out of there and looked at the clock and it was 11:30. I was like, “We’ve still got time to make it to that courthouse if we leave right now.” It was that quick. It’s been almost eight years. Everybody thinks we’re an anomaly since we just ran off and randomly got married. Wait until I tell my wife that y’all made it 35. How long were y’all together at the time?

BON JOVI: We were together for nine years and then we got married. We went to high school together.

JELLY ROLL: Oh, shit. That’s awesome.

BON JOVI: It’s really good. I have no complaints. Hey, how did you come up with Jelly Roll?

JELLY ROLL: My mother. I was a little chubby kid that loved jelly donuts, and she didn’t know the difference between a jelly roll and a donut. I only found out the difference later in life, because I had to google it. I had to fight that fucking pastry for real estate on Google for 15 years. [Laughs] But she called me Jelly Roll. I always say the difference between a nickname and a stage name is you don’t get to give yourself your nickname. Because if I was a stripper and got to give myself a stripper name, I’d give myself something really cool, like Zeus. But it didn’t work that way, so I got stuck with Jelly Roll. Like every other nickname, you can imagine, through high school I about halfway hated it. But it just stuck. Now it’s so funny, if somebody says, “Jason,” I don’t look. My mother still calls me her little Jelly. I walk in her house and she’ll go, “Is that my little Jelly?” I’m six-two and almost 40. [Laughs]

BON JOVI: That’s cool. So you did Stagecoach over the weekend. I heard that was a hell of a show. Rave reviews from the CAA guys.

JELLY ROLL: It went really well.

BON JOVI: Where you’re at now, I can’t define you as country, I can’t define you as rock, I can’t define you as rap. You are Jelly Roll. You have a unique sound, which I think is fucking great because it’s an amalgam of all those things. Have you taken it overseas yet?

Jelly Roll

Jelly Roll

Jacket, T-shirt, and Pants Denimcratic. Sunglasses Balmain. Necklaces and Ring Jelly Roll’s Own. Bracelet Ice box. Watch Rolex x Ice Box. Shoes Timberland.

JELLY ROLL: Not yet. I’m so excited. We’re figuring out the final pieces of some legal puzzles for me to get overseas.

BON JOVI: Really?

JELLY ROLL: Yeah. It’s funny, America has finally agreed to let me leave and give me a passport, but some countries won’t let me come because of my felonies. We’re working on that. I think it’s going to work in my favor.

BON JOVI: I hope so. Those are really archaic rules. Entertainers should be able to go and do their job.

JELLY ROLL: For the record I’m a kid from Antioch, Tennessee, whose father never left the southeastern region until he was in his fifties.

BON JOVI: I don’t think my father left New Jersey. [Laughs]

JELLY ROLL: [Laughs] I still have friends in Antioch who have never left. They’ve never seen a football game downtown—just watch the Titans on TV every Sunday. I’m like, “You know the stadium is 18 minutes away, right? We can get a ticket for $10.”

BON JOVI: They probably got it right though. They’re like, “I’ve got a big-screen TV, I don’t need to find parking.”

JELLY ROLL: “I’ve got air conditioning, there’s not 70,000 people breathing on me, a hot dog isn’t 15 dollars.” Maybe I’m the dumbass. [Laughs]

BON JOVI: [Laughs] Yeah. We got to spend a good amount of time in Nashville over the years, and I’ve always said, “Those are my people,” even though I’m not from there. People say, “What do you mean?” I go, “Every kid that pumps gas is a great songwriter or a singer or a musician.” It’s not like Hollywood, which to me was always about the acting community. Nashville was always about the magic of song.

JELLY ROLL: A song can break out at a coffee shop here. Literally, you could bump into another writer in the line—“I’ve been having this idea I’ve been kicking around.” And he’ll pitch a title. “I love that, let’s do it.” That is so the town.

BON JOVI: I’m with you. We did our current record at Ocean Way [Recording].

JELLY ROLL: I love that room. The big cathedral room.

BON JOVI: Yes. I want the history, though. Is that former cult leader’s wife really buried downstairs in the little mix room?

JELLY ROLL: That’s what I heard. They try to stifle it, because I think Belmont [University] bought the property now, so they tried to corporatize it. I’m like, “It’s way cooler when you tell the real story about this place.”

Jelly Roll

Jacket and T-shirt Denimcratic. Sunglasses Balmain. Necklaces and Ring Jelly Roll’s Own. Bracelet Ice box.

BON JOVI: I’m going with that story—dead body under the console. But we did a couple things on Music Row in the little studios over the years. I just love it. David Bryan [Bon Jovi’s] keyboard player, just moved to Nashville.

JELLY ROLL: Yeah, it’s a growing town. When I grew up there it had a population of 380,000 to 420,000, and I think it’s, like, 2.2 million.

BON JOVI: Is traffic becoming a bitch?

JELLY ROLL: For a local, but if you lived there the last 12 years you wouldn’t notice a difference. I notice a difference because I can imagine my dead father in my ear cussing, “Who the fuck are these people?” [Laughs] It’s still cool for me though, because I don’t think I’ve used GPS in years. I see a traffic jam, I’ll just hop off the interstate and find another route.

BON JOVI: Right, you know where to go. So you’re just in L.A. for a day or two and then you’re going back?

JELLY ROLL: I’m writing through Friday, and then Saturday I gave the iHeartCountry Festival. They’ve rebranded Memphis in May to RiverBeat, and we’re headlining Sunday night. Then I’m back out here Monday to do a 5K with my comedian friends Bert Kreischer and Tom Segura.

BON JOVI: Oh my god, the Machine! I busted a nut the first time I heard the Machine. I fucking love him.

JELLY ROLL: It’s one of the greatest comedy stories ever, dude. Yeah, they gassed me up to do this 5K with them, so I’m going to do it to support the boys, and my own health. Then I’m back to Nashville finishing the album. I’m in heavy album mode right now.

BON JOVI: So you would hope to have something out by the year’s end?

JELLY ROLL: Yes, sir. It’s such a juxtaposition. I’m almost 40 years old, I put out 29 different projects in my career, but I’m technically about to drop my sophomore album.

BON JOVI: I actually noticed that with all the early records, the credit for the label was nothing I recognized. It was Bad Apple?

JELLY ROLL: Yeah, that’s our own brand. We did it indie for so long—the part of my story that most people don’t know on the business side is that I didn’t partner with BMG until I had almost a billion YouTube views. I was doing 3,000-seat theaters everywhere in the Rust Belt and the Bible Belt before I signed the deal. My first show coming out of the pandemic in ’21 before the deal was an 8,000-seater in Georgia.

BON JOVI: Wow. Five albums under your belt that you owned.

JELLY ROLL: Yeah, for sure. You’ll be proud to know I still own my masters.

BON JOVI: Bravo, amen to that.

JELLY ROLL: But even now we act as a complete independent, we just turn in records.

BON JOVI: They’re the distribution center.

JELLY ROLL: Exactly. We use the label services like radio. I don’t think anybody does radio better than my record label.

BON JOVI: BMG, you said?

JELLY ROLL: Yep, Broken Bow [Records], Stoney Creek [Records]. Me and Lainey Wilson are label mates.

BON JOVI: Which, by the way, is she the greatest thing ever?

JELLY ROLL: Ever. Voice, work ethic, human, checks every box.

BON JOVI: Not only was she awesome at MusiCares, but then I saw her perform at Clive [Davis]’s thing, where she came out with you and did “Save Me.” Both of you played for a different audience that fell in love with you that weekend and went, “Holy fuck, look at this talent.”

JELLY ROLL: We felt so honored, because we represented country music and Nashville that week. I looked at her and was like, “I’m so proud of the way we’re carrying ourselves out here. This might be the biggest ripple a couple of Nashville artists have made at Grammy Week in a long time.”

Jelly Roll

Hoodie Telfar. T-shirt Denimcratic. Pants Jelly Roll’s own. Bracelets and Ring King Baby.

BON JOVI: Yeah, it was really special to see the two of you at Clive’s. I was sitting with Brandi Carlile and we were just hooting and hollering from our table, because it was awesome. I know in September you’re playing the Garden—I have to come and see you play!

JELLY ROLL: Let’s go, baby!

BON JOVI: Will you do the local choir thing again?

JELLY ROLL: Oh yeah. For sure.

BON JOVI: That’s showstopping shit.

JELLY ROLL: The way to do it, man. I wanted to make sure that we did the Clive room right. It was a big bucket list thing for me. When management called, they were like, “Have you ever heard of the Clive Davis party?” I said, “I don’t live under a rock, I’m in the music business, of course I know the Clive Davis party. But we can’t get in.” They were like, “Yeah, you can. They want you to sing.” I was like, “No fucking way!”

BON JOVI: It was a wonderful night. He’s a legend’s legend. From Janis Joplin to Springsteen to Whitney Houston, he signed some fucking talent.

JELLY ROLL: And still has an ear for it.

BON JOVI: Yes, yes. Alright, I think we got a lot here.

JELLY ROLL: That felt like I was just conversing with a friend.

BON JOVI: For me, too.

JELLY ROLL: That’s the same talk we’d have at a coffee shop if I’d been in New Jersey this morning.


Grooming: Brittany Leslie using Oribe at The Wall Group.

Fashion Assistant: Claire Johnson.

Location: Commodore Perry Estate.