Jelly Roll took Country Thunder Arizona to church in inspiring set: 'Everything I dreamed'

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Jelly Roll drew a huge crowd for the weekend’s most anticipated set at Country Thunder Arizona, taking the stage with arms outstretched to thunderous applause as he launched his performance with “Halfway to Hell,” the gospel-tinged country-rap anthem that opens his first full-blown country album, last year’s “Whitsitt Chapel.”

“I’ve been dreaming of headlining Country Thunder, y’all,” he shouted at the song's conclusion, grinning ear-to-ear, before following through with “The Lost," one of several highlights that spoke to the spiritual side of the Jelly Roll phenomenon.

"I've been known to find my kind of people that ain't at home underneath church steeples," he sang with the soulful conviction of a true believer. "You'd be surprised the places I find Jesus. That ain't the regular crowd."

He’s like a gospel tent revivalist with way more face tattoos than your typical preacher.

And before the night was through, he'd delivered an uplifting sermon or two for a crowd he said numbered as many as 26,000, framing his darkest hours as a pathway to enlightenment.

Jelly Roll revved up Country Thunder believers when tour hit Arizona

Jelly Roll performs Saturday at Country Thunder in Florence on April 13, 2024.
Jelly Roll performs Saturday at Country Thunder in Florence on April 13, 2024.

Midway through his set, he noted that he'd picked up Best New Artist at the Country Music Association Awards last November at "almost 39 years old," the oldest Best New Artist in the history of that award.

"A man once told me that he believed in his heart that I could change," he told the crowd.

"He told me that, no matter what I'm going through, that things were gonna be better, that I was gonna get through it on the other side of it, that there would be a light at the end of the darkest tunnel of my life and I would turn things around and I would change people's lives and I could do different. And when he said it, I believed him, Arizona! I believed it in my soul!"

As his testifying reached a fevered pitch, he spoke to those who may be going through their own dark times.

"I believe in you!" he said.

Live from Florence: Every song Jelly Roll played at Country Thunder AZ 2024

'The windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror for a reason!'

"I believe in change! I believe in who you are is not who you were! I believe that you can change! I believe that bigger and better things are on the horizon! .... I believe that the windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror for a reason! Because what's in front of you is so much more important than what's behind you. That's what I believe, Arizona."

It was actually quite moving. And theatrical.

The man called Jelly Roll explained his genre-mashing musical proclivities as an outgrowth of his upbringing in Nashville, Tennessee.

His mom loved country music — "Oh, but she played the good stuff," he said, before rattling off a laundry list of country icons, from Waylon and Willie to George Jones, Merle Haggard and Keith Whitley — while his sister favored rock ‘n’ roll and his brother blasted gangster rap in a bedroom a 12-year-old Jelly Roll was pretty sure contained a dead skunk.

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Jelly Roll dusted off hip-hop tracks for 'day-one' fans

"I now know that to be the sweet smell of marijuana," he added, playfully, by way of setting up a medley of Eazy-E’s “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” DMX’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” and Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend.”

He also dusted off a handful of his own more hip-hop-oriented songs for the "old-school, day-one" fans, from a Tech N9ne collab called "Creature" to "Smoking Section," a song from 2015's "Therapeutic Music 5" mixtape that features a sing-along chorus of "I hope that heaven has a smoking section."

There's an obvious debt to Eminem on his early hip-hop tracks, which only underscores how quickly he's been able to arrive at something he can truly call his own along the way to "Whitsitt Chapel," topping Billboard's Country Airplay chart three times in 2023.

"Son of a Sinner," the first of those chart-topping singles, showed up early in the set, inspiring a massive sing-along.

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'I don't think there's a better place to honor Toby Keith'

His speech about the country acts his mother turned him on to led into "Should've Been a Cowboy."

"We lost a legend this year when we lost Toby Keith," he said. "As I was walking onstage, I said, 'I tell you what, I don't think there's a better place to honor Toby Keith than from right here. And if I know one thing about the state of Arizona, ya'll love some cowboy music, don't ya?"

Jelly Roll brought the concert to an uplifting close with 'Save Me'

As he was nearing the end of his set, he spoke with pride of being labeled "white trash."

"What's happening tonight is more than a festival!" he shouted.

"It's more than a concert! This is bigger than me! This is bigger than the music! This is about the message, baby! Tonight is a family reunion of people who are healing together! That's what's happening here tonight!"

He held off on the biggest hits on "Whitsitt Chapel" until the concert was nearing its conclusion, slipping Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man" between a heartfelt sing-along of "Need a Favor" and the version of "Save Me" that brought the concert to the only logical conclusion.

'I will always make real music for real people'

"This is everything I dreamed it would be!" he shouted after "Simple Man."

"I broke generational curses because you listen to my music! Y'all picked the most uneducated, overweight, average mother (expletive) in America and you made him a star! No matter how many times I say thank you, it'll never be enough. But what I will do is I will always make real music for real people that have been through real (expletive) and have had real problems."

He'll always be there representing them, he said.

And with that, he signed off with a song about being "a lost cause" as a choir of more than 20,000 added their voices to his prayer on a gospel-tinged gem of a song that feels like something Otis Redding might have written.

Jelly Roll 2024 tour setlist: All the songs he did at Country Thunder Arizona

Here's every song Jelly Roll played on Saturday, April 13, at Country Thunder Arizona:

  • "Halfway to Hell"

  • "The Lost"

  • "Creature"

  • "Dead Man Walking"

  • "Son of a Sinner"

  • "Should've Been a Cowboy" (Toby Keith tribute)

  • "Boys in the Hood"/"Ruff Ryders' Anthem"/"Lose Yourself"/"Ms. Jackson"/"Just a Friend"

  • "Son of the Dirty South" (Brantley Gilbert cover)

  • "Hate Goes On"

  • "Fall in the Fall"

  • "Smoking Section"

  • "She"

  • "Bottle and Mary Jane"

  • "Need a Favor"

  • "Simple Man" (Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute)

  • "Save Me"

Reach the reporter at Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @EdMasley.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Jelly Roll took Country Thunder Arizona 2024 to church: 'I believe!'