Ed Roland & The
Named after the drink that is a cultural trademark of the band’s home region, Ed Roland and the Sweet Tea Project began serendipitously two years ago when the veteran singer/songwriter, with a month off from his Collective Soul activities, began reconnecting with the rich club and coffeehouse scene in Atlanta. On random nights, he would invite some of these popular local musicians to his house to jam on tunes he had written that reached outside the stylistic jurisdiction of Collective Soul, including “Going to Birmingham,” one of the highlights from their debut album Devils ‘n Darlins that Roland penned on the ukulele.
“Everyone sat around my studio with different instruments from the banjo, and mandolin to the steel guitar and ukulele, and just had a lot of fun,” Roland says.
Roland enjoyed the loose homespun atmosphere, especially the unexpected energy of co-writing new songs with some of these musician friends. Among the most frequent visitors as the casual Sweet Tea jams took shape were bassist Brian Bisky and Christopher Alan Yates (who also plays banjo and trumpet). Yates’ participation was a reunion of sorts, as he and Roland had known each other since the early ‘80s, when they played in the popular local cover band Premiere. Though other locals make appearances on the album, the official recording and touring lineup of Ed Roland and the Sweet Tea Project includes guitarist Jesse Tripplet and drummer Mike Rizzi.
As word got around Atlanta about the exciting organic happenings at Roland’s house, the band was asked by a local radio station to open a gig for Band of Horses. Following that, they did three-week “Rooted in Georgia” residencies at Decatur, Ga.’s Eddie’s Attic, where everyone from the Indigo Girls to John Mayer and Shawn Mullins cut their teeth early on, and The Melting Point in Athens, Ga.
Ed Roland and the Sweet Tea Project then entered and won ESPN’s contest to re-imagine its NBA themed music, an initiative driven by fan voting. The band was featured on the SportsNation section of ESPN.com, and their version of the song aired during ESPN’s exclusive coverage of NBA All-Star weekend. Featuring an arrangement with banjo, dobro and trumpet, the track was a preview of the unique sound that Ed Roland and the Sweet Tea Project subsequently captured when they pared down a total of “30 tracks we were proud of” and set out to record their debut album. They also captured the evolving vibe of the album with their version of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From The Storm,” which was released on the four-CD all-star compilation Chimes of Freedom: Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International.
“We started going out, playing and had too much fun. We were very proud of the songs and these guys have been singing together for years developing their harmony chops,” says Roland. “Working with all these guys opened me up to a whole new world of sharing ideas, and the main focus will always be writing the best songs I can write or co-write with my band mates. When you expand your sonic vision to include less conventional instruments like banjo, uke, dobro and pedal steel guitar, anything can happen.”
Embodying his long held spiritual belief that in essence we are all Devils ‘n Darlins at different points in our lives, the raw locomotive title track rocker has a brooding Johnny Cash flavor inspired by Roland’s memory of the first concert his minister father ever took him to as a kid. He wrote the jangly and playful, vocal harmony driven traveling tune “Going To Birmingham” about his frequent road trips through Alabama, but grounds it in the concept (inspired by a friend’s brother who was dying of cancer there) that wherever we choose to live on this earth can be our heaven.
Long renowned as an autobiographical songwriter, Roland shows that he is aging gracefully and accepting his place as a Southern man on several of Devils ‘n Darlins’ most emotionally impactful tracks: the intense and fiery “Love Won’t Bring Us Down,” about the joy of returning home from even the worst touring experiences to spend time with his two children; the simmering electric gospel blues ballad “Lennon’s Lullaby” (co-written with Yates) about the way his wide eyed four year old son inspires Roland to see beyond what is in front of him; and the lighthearted easy strumming acoustic pop/rocker “Just As I Am,” which borrows a title from the Baptist hymnal Roland grew up with and finds him at a peaceful juncture of self acceptance (and embracing his roots as a Southerner) years after getting on the Collective Soul rollercoaster.
Another track, the steel pedal guitar pumped country rocker “Piles of Pearls,” is a long obscured gem Roland penned in the late 80s, which he often uses as a rehearsal warm up tune with Collective Soul.
While co-writing about half of Devils ‘n Darlins, Roland is excited about being surrounded by some powerful songwriting talent in the Sweet Tea Project. Among the highlights written by his bandmates are Yates’ whimsical, horn fired breakup rocker “Already Over” (featuring Yates on trumpet); and Bisky’s infectious, churchy gospel-folk sing-along “Forget About Your Life (For A While),” whose key philosophical hook line is “life can be hard as a Monday morning or easy as a Friday night.”
More than simply a magical, engaging one off project during a hiatus from Collective Soul, Ed Roland and the Sweet Tea Project are evolving into a powerhouse recording and touring unit. Fans can look forward to a second album from the band, slated for release in early 2016.