On Wednesday (June 7), Billboard hosted a series of intimate conversations and panels with country legends like Garth Brooks and rising stars like Jelly Roll. Titled Billboard Country Live in Conversation, the one-day ticketed conference for fans and industry insiders took over Marathon Music Works in Nashville.
Jelly Roll closed out the eventful day, during which he discussed his first Billboard cover and honor as the Breakthrough Artist of the Year, which he received the night prior (June 6) at Billboard‘s 2023 Country Power Players celebration.
During his Q&A with Billboard executive editor Melinda Newman, the hitmaker went deep on fatherhood, the juvenile justice system and the similarities — and differences — he sees in rap (where he got his start) and country (where he has since taken off). Yet, he made sure to note that his influences extend far beyond either genre, citing songs like Bette Midler’s “The Rose” (“instant snot buckets,” he says) or James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” among other hits by Bob Seger and Kid Rock, that have deeply affected him.
His love of music, he says, “started with my mother and how much music affected her with her mental health and drug addiction… When nobody was there for me, music was. … I love songs that grow with you.”
He later suggested what a difference it would have made if he had been able to make music while incarcerated, saying, “Imagine having a platform to find my talent and love earlier? You have gasoline poured on a small flame… It’s another form of connection.”
He later summarized his current place in life by saying: “10 years before this, I was f—ed, 10 years later I may still be, but in this window, I am cool cruising, baby.”
Below are the biggest revelations from his conversation.
His Newborn Daughter Inspired Him to Get His GED
Jelly Roll got his GED at 24, after spending his 15th, 16th and 17th birthdays in jail. He says what finally motivated him to study for it was learning of his newborn baby girl. “It wasn’t a surprise, I knew what was happening, but it didn’t register until that particular moment. … It’s a way more dramatic moment finding out you had a child born when you’re in a concrete slab,” he recalled for the packed crowd. “You’re already contemplating every bad or good thing you’ve ever done. Back then I only knew one emotion: anger. So it made me process that… I went straight down and signed up with the education center that day. [I thought], ‘I have to figure this out for her.’ I found worth in her,” he said through tears.
He Sees Himself as a Songwriter First
As Jelly Roll first learned during his Billboard cover story interview, he debuted on the charts back in 2011 when Strictly Business, his collaborative album with rapper Haystack, entered the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. “I didn’t know this either, by the way,” he told the crowd before declaring with a laugh, “Find that f—ing distributor!”
When asked if genre matters — whether he’s known or more successful for his rap or country music — he replied, “It’s just music. This is going to be a hot take; I feel like I always wrote nothing but country songs, just produced weirdly. I just immediately deflected, [but] all my songs were written to tell the truth and tell a story.”
He later called songwriters “the heartbeat of this town,” also adding, “I’m honored to be one of the artists in town who identifies as a songwriter… I’m confident I will do that until I die.”
He Finally Booked His First Show Abroad
As he discussed in his cover story, Jelly Roll was unable to leave the country for years due to his criminal record. But recently, he was finally was able to get a passport — and during his conversation revealed he just booked his first show out of the country. “It’s my first time leaving the country to go do music,” he said, while maintaining just enough ambiguity to keep fans guessing as to when or where that performance will be.
He Believes There’s a Strong Overlap Between Country and Hip-Hop
“300 words, that’s the difference between a country song and a rap song,” said Jelly, explaining that the doubled or tripled time code in a rap song allows an artist to fit in more of their thoughts. “I love being able to be as wordy as I want to be… or tell a story with less,” he said. “That’s why [the two genres] marry so well together … Morgan Wallen and Sam Hunt have been so successful from clear hip hop influences,” he added, saying they have more freedom in their storytelling, which helps their music resonate so strongly.
He Revealed the Equation To His Success
While accepting his Breakthrough Artist of the Year award the night prior, Jelly Roll spoke a good deal about luck and the role it has played in his life and career. When asked to put a percent on the role that luck has played, he replied: “I love your questions… I hate you for ‘em some time… but this is so good.”
After some thought, he came up with the following breakdown: “I’m 55-60% hard work, 15% talent… I had to spend thousands of hours figuring this out, and 25% pure absolute luck. Just perfect timing. I also think I shoveled shit for 30 years and when my heart turned, God was like, ‘I was just waiting on you, big fella.’”
He Tried To Buy His Childhood Home
After making some money, Jelly said he tried to do what every rapper does: buy his childhood home. Unfortunately, he said, the current owner “plans on dying there.” He said with a laugh that he was tempted to ask just how old the current owner is, but assured the crowd that if and when the owner does decide to sell, “he won’t sell to anybody else.”
Music Execs Suggested He Try To Make It In Los Angeles
Jelly Roll said he always knew Nashville had his back. “Valets, Uber drivers, Uber Eats drivers, service workers all love Jelly Roll, those are my people,” he said with a smile. “I hope my music helps a guy on a yacht, but it does a whole lot more for a bartender in Antioch. Hits a little different.”
He then admitted the music industry in Nashville though was a less certain sell. He recalled how at first, a handful suggested he go to L.A. and work with someone like Charlie Puth, but he always wanted to make it in Nashville — and with a country artist like Ashley McBryde.
He can now say he sure has, as he and the Grammy winner co-wrote the Whitsitt Chapel hit “Unlive.”
He Prioritizes “Me Time” …And Picked Up Some Other Helpful Tools In Therapy
Jelly says he’s protecting his mental health by prioritizing “me time” every night. “I play video games for about an hour every day, it’s my ‘me hour,” he said. “I prioritize a little bit of ‘me time,’ something you love to do, it helps with mental health so much.” He also shared that he makes it a point to call one of his siblings every day, saying how important it is to talk to “somebody who doesn’t give a sh– about what Jelly Roll is doing.”
He also spoke on the importance of therapy, and even revealed one of the best tools he’s learned so far. He explained that his wife’s instinct when going through something is to “back away and reassess … but because of my mother’s addictions and struggles, the kid in me would want to go, ‘What can I do to help?’ The triggers in me would think I did something wrong. I started 30 arguments [with my wife] because I didn’t understand that. I was so selfishly making it about me… It wasn’t malicious, it was a trigger from things I went through that I didn’t even realize.”
“Now things happen in my life and before I react I can catch triggers,” he added. “Identifying them now saves me so much trouble.”
He’s Dreaming Bigger Than Ever Before
“Now that I learned my dreams were never too small, I’m dreaming properly,” said Jelly Roll with a confident smile. He then shared his hopes for the future, which included playing Nashville’s Nissan Stadium, New York’s Madison Square Garden and Los Angeles’ Crypto.com Arena. He is also gunning for a Grammy, and said he wants the “respect of critics and peers” to come next after sweeping the fan-voted CMT Awards not long ago. “I hope they accept me but if they don’t, f— it,” he said. “I’ve always got the fans, baby.”
“I never worry about getting an ego because I still struggle with this thing, period,” he added. “No matter how great I am now — and I’m proud of myself for saying that because it took me a long time to feel that way — God’s not done with me. My best days are in front of me.”