Jelly Roll is gearing up for an emotional night heading into the 57th Annual CMA Awards. The “Save Me” singer made waves in Nashville with the release of his acclaimed studio album, Whitsitt Chapel, earlier this year, and is not only a first-time CMA nominee — but the top-nominated male artist in his debut outing.
“Dude, I don’t think I even woke up expecting a nomination, so when they told me I was the most-nominated male, I almost pooped myself,” the artist, born Jason Bradley DeFord, jokes to ET during rehearsals for the upcoming show at Bridgestone Arena.
The singer’s “Need a Favor” is up for Single of the Year and Music Video of the Year, while he’s also nominated for Male Artist of the Year, New Artist of the Year and Musical Event of the Year for his “Save Me” collaboration with Lainey Wilson. For her part, Wilson is this year’s most-nominated act with a whopping nine nominations to her name.
For Jelly Roll, feeling welcomed into the fold of country music’s elite class marks a truly moving milestone. Similar to the Oscars and the GRAMMYs in Hollywood — Nashville’s CMA Awards are voted on by members of the Country Music Association, meaning all nominees and winners are celebrated by their peers in the industry.
“It was the nod of approval I prayed for,” Jelly Roll says. “I knew that we were selling tickets, I knew that fans were with us, I knew that we had people that were getting moved by the music, but I wasn’t really sure what Nashville thought of me, you know?”
Becoming misty, he continues.
“It makes me want to get emotional,” he admits. “I’m really getting teary-eyed. For me, it was really like, you know, I’m welcome here and it was really cool.”
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Beyond the nominations, Jelly Roll has also been tapped to bookend the ceremony with a pair of opening and closing performances.
“There’s no greater honor,” he says of the opening slot, during which he’ll play “Need a Favor.” “I would pray that one day I could be a fly on the wall and look back in history in that boardroom, and I just want to know who suggested it, right? ‘Cause somebody had to sit around a big table of important people and go, ‘I think Jelly Roll should open the show.'”
Adding with a laugh, “Whoever did it, I just want to kiss them on the mouth.”
As for the closing performance, Jelly Roll will be teaming up with K. Michelle to pay tribute to The Judds with “Love Can Build a Bridge” — but Jelly Roll admits that he didn’t say yes to the gig right away.
“I called Wynonna [Judd] and I said, ‘I want to know what you think about this and if I have your blessing,’ and she said, ‘Not only do I want you to do it, you better do it big,'” he shares. “And boy, I mean, I had a battery in my back at that moment. I felt like she strapped a rocket on me, you know? And I was hyped up so I just want to make sure that I honor the legacy of Wynonna and her late mother properly.”
“K. Michelle has got one of the greatest voices on earth,” Jelly Roll gushes. “My only goal for that is to make sure that we represent Wynonna and Naomi properly in that moment, and respectfully, and also to stay out of K. Michelle’s way ’cause she is gonna go to church. I know it and I can feel it.”
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Jelly Roll also teases a special guest to come in his first performance, but keeps mum on dropping any identifying hints.
“I’ll have a special guest,” he confirms, “I’m not telling nobody who it is.”
Last week, it was announced that this year’s CMAs will also feature performances by Kelsea Ballerini, Kenny Chesney, Luke Combs, Dan + Shay, Jordan Davis, Hardy, Alan Jackson, Cody Johnson, Post Malone, Mac McAnally, Ashley McBride, Morgan Wallen, The War and Treaty, and Zac Brown Band.
The show will also feature a tribute to the late Jimmy Buffett featuring performers Chesney, McAnally, Jackson and the Zac Brown Band.
“Country music is on fire,” Jelly Roll gushes. “The spectrum of country music and the net of country music is wider than it’s ever been. More people are singing it and singing it different than they ever sang it. More people are watching it than have ever watched it. Country music is the new pop.”
The 2023 CMA Awards, hosted by Bryan and retired NFL pro Peyton Manning, will be broadcasted live on Wednesday, Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC and available the next day on Hulu.