The name caught my eye, and the music captured my attention. While this Alabama group doesn’t play straight bluegrass, their music does incorporate many elements of what we love about Big Mon’s legacy.
I had the pleasure of talking with founding member and guitarist, Chris Griffin, about the group Dave Higgs of Nashville Public Radio calls “one of the freshest sounding, exuberant bands in all of the known acoustic universe.”
DM: When did you guys start playing together?
CG: The band officially started in 2006.
DM: Your band has a very interesting name. Where did you guys come up with it?
CG: The band’s name comes from a running joke… We’re all so busy that it would take an “act of congress” for us to meet for rehearsal.
DM: You mention Nickel Creek and The Punch Brothers on your Noisetrade page, and you can definitely hear the Nickel Creek influence in your music.
CG: There is definitely some Nickel Creek in there for Adam and I. Funny coincidence: [Chris] Thile’s mom, Kathy, does our website, their old tour manager, John Mooy, is a friend, and when the band got started, we tracked down all the relevant folks in their business model and took them to lunch! We love em!
DM: You guys seem to have a variety of musical influences. Where do you guys draw inspiration?
CG: The most interesting thing about this group is that none of us have real roots in bluegrass. Influences range from jazz to rock to folk to classical, etc. The combination of instruments is what appeals most to us [about bluegrass] because they seem to transcend genre limitations.
DM: Since becoming a rising star in the acoustic music scene, have you come to learn more about bluegrass?
CG: Tell my bank account the rising star part… We kind of got in the scene because of the newgrass guys. I love Cody Kilby, Mathew Wingate, Bryan Sutton, Andy Leftwich, Byron House, and JD.
DM: Chris, you play guitar, correct? Who are some of your favorite guitar players?
CG: I came up in the early nineties and was a big shred guitar guy – Eric Johnson, Steve Vai,etc. At some point I got into the chicken pickers like Brent Mason, and now I take jazz lessons from Mark Kimbrell. He’s in the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and played with Oteil and the Peace Makers for several years. He kicks my butt on a weekly basis. In my church we play a lot of black gospel music, so I’m constantly trying to emulate the organ players and the drummers. The gospel drummers have such a great since of pocket. I practice a basic beat with a metronome for an hour or so a week. Drumming really helps your timing!
DM: I hear you guys have played with the great, John Mayer. What was it like playing with a modern day icon like Mayer?
CG: We love John Mayer’s music and did have the opportunity to play a VIP area at one of his shows. Sadly, we didn’t get to meet him, but did get to see the show. One word – amazing.
DM: Can you share some of your favorite Act Of Congress moments?
CG: Some of our most favorite moments as Act of Congress would probably be our two sold out CD release shows at Workplay Theatre (2008 and 2012), our most recent Christmas performance with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, and learning that we’d been chosen for an international tour to southeast Asia and Australia in September of this year.
DM: Why don’t you tell us about your debut album, Declaration and your latest album, Worth Fighting For?
CG: Declaration is our first full length album, released back in 2008. We really feel like this was our first step in finding an identity as an acoustic group. I still enjoy listening to it from time to time. Worth Fighting For was just released this past March and reflects a more mature sound (both in writing and production). We allowed the melting pot of influences to overflow into these songs and the result, we think, is extremely diverse. We’re very proud of it.
DM: If you could describe Act Of Congress’ music in one sentence, what would it be?
CG: Act of Congress has been described as a “timeless blend of tight harmonies, vintage instrumentation and deep musical roots” (Alabama Symphony Orchestra) and “one of the freshest sounding, exuberant bands in all of the known acoustic universe” (Dave Higgs, NPR Nashville). Finding a genre has always been a challenge, but we definitely know it’s acoustic and we want to keep it that way.
DM: What would you say Act Of Congress’ mission is?
CG: Stepping back from it I hope we glorify God with our gifts and talents. We view them as His, but on loan to us for a while. On a weekly basis it gets a lot more confusing. We juggle teaching and running music schools Monday-Wednesday in addition to keeping up with the business end of the band, which is all in house. Thursday-Saturday we are playing. Last week was lecturing and performing with a youth symphony from Costa Rica, Country Club, and two weddings. This week we are turning the band into a 6 piece big band to back up, American Idol winner, Taylor Hicks….You just never know…
I definitely recommend this new acoustic group. The extreme talent exhibited by these young adults cannot be overstated. Their original music is uniquely their own, and features elements of various forms of music, including bluegrass.
Here are a few of their tunes which I think bluegrass fans may particularly enjoy.
Five Minutes Of Fame: We all know people who are yearning for the spotlight, looking for their big break into show biz. Well, Five Minutes Of Fame is the song about them! Even though it includes a Michael Jackson break that “made my Grandma cry,” it is one of the grassiest tunes the band does. This song is very catchy, and a whole lot of fun.
Five Minutes Of Fame: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/Five_Minutes.mp3]
The Bear: An instrumental, The Bear shows off Act Of Congress’ instrumental prowess. Primarily a four piece ensemble (guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass), everyone gets a chance to shine on The Bear. This one sounds as if it could be an old tune from The Tony Rice Unit.
The Bear: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/The_Bear.mp3]
Time: At times, Act Of Congress reminds me off the modern country group, Gloriana. This is one of those instances. The light drums behind the studio version of Time are a welcome addition, and really add to the recording. The track even includes a background banjo to keep things moving! I don’t understand why this one isn’t climbing the Billboard Country charts.
In a short time, Act Of Congress has already accomplished what many bands only hope for. In addition to opening for music icons such as John Mayer and Alan Jackson, they have also backed up such big names as Sara Evans and Taylor Hicks. Their latest album, Worth Fighting For, debuted at #18 on iTunes Singer/Songwriter charts this past March. As Chris alluded to in the interview, Act Of Congress is even preparing for a 35-day tour of southeast Asia and Australia in September, put on by the U.S. State Department! The sky is the limit for this rising star in acoustic music.
Be sure to download their free sampler on Noisetrade. It includes eight songs and is a very good introduction to the band. Also, you can check out their website, where you can stream several of their songs.
As a post-Fourth of July treat, here is a video of Act Of Congress performing My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.
Hopefully, you fall in love with Act Of Congress as much as I have. It’s not bluegrass, but it’s not bad. Their music transcends genre labels, and appeals to a wide audience. I’m sure many of your friends who aren’t bluegrass fans will like this group as much as you do.