Culture // 6 min Read

Where the River Flows

Written by Palmetto Bluff

Jun 15, 2022

Photography by: Rob Kaufman and Krisztian Lonyai

In thirty or forty years, if you happen to see a raging fire burning out on the waters of the May River, don’t be alarmed. That’s just Ed Roland, taking one last trip downstream before heading off into the hereafter.

“The guys were all down here one time and they were like, ‘You know when you pass, we should probably do a Viking funeral for you. We’ll douse you in some gasoline and send you out there and shoot some flaming arrows. And whoever gets you first gets five percent of your publishing for 10 years,’” remarked Ed with a laugh, staring down the Bluff toward his planned final resting place. “Next thing I know they’re all out back with old bows and arrows practicing just to mess with me. That’s how much we love each other… And they know how much I love it here.”

It would be a fittingly epic end for Roland, seen off by his Collective Soul brothers and bandmates and resting in the river that has come to mean so much to him.

“I mean, that’s God’s artwork right here,” he said, his gaze still on the May. “It’s pretty cool.”

Hints, Allegations & Things Left Unsaid

For those who didn’t grow up in the era when Collective Soul ruled the radio, or who haven’t seen them live during their nearly endless 30-year tour since, a brief introduction might be in order. Emerging at a time when rock

music was in an odd state of flux—the hair band era was officially over, and the shine was just starting to come off grunge—Collective Soul entered the fray with “Shine,” a track that married optimistic lyrics with headbanging guitar riffs.

It was their first big hit. For Ed Roland, a kid from Stockbridge, Georgia who grew up obsessed with music, it was a chance to meet his heroes. Elton John, a massive influence on Roland’s early life, became friend, neighbor, and eventual collaborator on 2000’s “Perfect Day.” Opening for Van Halen on their second tour, he shared a moment with their iconic guitar player.

“I’m standing there before the show just in awe that this is about to happen, and Eddie walks up to me and says, ‘I’m kind of nervous. This is the first time I’ve been sober during a show.’ I told him, ‘If it makes you feel any better, I’m pretty nervous, too. This is my first time I’ve ever had to open for Van Halen,’” said Roland. “We became buds. He’s the one who taught me how to play golf.”

In a post-grunge era of bubblegum pop, sensitive rock, and gangsta rap, Collective Soul unapologetically did their own thing, and music fans responded. You can’t really categorize it as a “meteoric” rise to fame. Once “Shine” blew up on college rock radio and MTV, the band went back into the studio for their self-titled follow-up album, which included some of their best-known songs. Or at least that most people will have heard countless times without realizing they all stemmed from the same band.

“I did a show with Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine, and after the show he said, ‘I didn’t know you did all those songs,’ and I was like, ‘yeah, that’s just how it goes.’”

While tracks like “The World I Know,” “Where The River Flows,” and “December,” will live forever as long as there is rock and roll radio and jukeboxes in bars, they represent the odd niche that Collective Soul represents in the musical pantheon.

“We had hits before anyone knew who the band was. I mean, ‘Shine’ was ‘Shine.’ We’re just very blessed that the songs were bigger than the band, especially in the beginning,” said Roland. “That’s one of the hardest parts. After 30 years we’ve never stopped… You want people to love the early stuff, but you also want them to appreciate what you’re doing now. It energizes us to get out and play the new stuff.”

It’s worth noting that despite 30 years of non-stop recording and touring for Roland, between Collective Soul and his side hustle Ed Roland and the Sweet Tea Project, despite legions of loyal fans who come out for the old stuff and the new stuff, there is one singular hole in his legendary career. And that hole is shaped like a Grammy.

“It is what it is,” said Roland. Still, the Grammy committee was nice enough to give him one heck of a consolation prize. After Dolly Parton won a Grammy in 2001 for her cover of “Shine,” the Grammys sent Ed Roland and his wife to a little place called Palmetto Bluff and changed the trajectory of their lives.

“We just fell in love with it,” he said. “It was just a spiritual thing.”

See What You Started by Continuing

During the intervening decades, Palmetto Bluff would become Roland’s getaway and the creative muse for both himself as a songwriter and for his band. “We look for places that inspire us, which is one of the reasons I love it here,” he said. “When we’re here we just can’t wait to record.”

And while his home and accompanying studio are being built, he’s finding inspiration anywhere and everywhere he can. Some tracks were recorded at a (very understanding) neighbor’s house. Some at the Roasting Room. “Porch Swing,” the final track of their 2019 album, Blood was written on a porch swing gazing out at the May River. Not that that’s unusual for Roland. “We have two records in the can now, and out of the 12 records we’ve done, we’ve only done two in a proper studio, for lack of a better term.”

So after spending as much time as he can at the Bluff, Roland finally made the move permanent this past year. “It was 7 a.m. on a Monday morning, and I made an executive decision. I didn’t tell my wife,” he said with a laugh. “I knew I’d have to do some explaining, but it was an easy sell… I think she was just waiting for me.”

Far from the clamor and turmoil of city living that Atlanta offered, Roland has found a new songwriting mojo among the natural tranquility of the Bluff. “And it gives me the freedom to concentrate because I never know when I’m creating. That’s the beautiful thing about being down here. I’m not disturbed, you know? And I mean just look at that right there,” he said, returning his gaze to the river. “That’s winning right there.”

And with his bandmates spread all over the country from San Diego to Indianapolis, Palmetto Bluff represents a place they can all come together and share in the mutual joy of music that has sustained them for decades. It also represents a place to practice their archery for that final show.

“It feels like home,” he said. “And then in hopefully 30, 40 years you’ll see a little fire out there for me.”

Read the original story in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of The Bluff.

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