Pop music gets a bad rap. Once celebrated as the sound of the masses, the musical memoriam to the zeitgeist of each generation, pop today seems to have devolved into something overly contrived, twisted, and tuned into a veritable caricature of itself. The issue, however, isn’t intrinsic to the genre; pop is merely the vehicle, a point proven by the fact that and every once in a while, a band comes along that challenges the auto-tune, hook-line-line-hook vacuum of the genre, stepping forward to remind us what made pop popular in the first place. Such is the case with Act of Congress, a self-proclaimed acoustic “new-grass” band out of Birmingham, Alabama, that manages to bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary without sounding contrived, that is, poppy without being self-conscious, spiritual without being preachy, and utterly unlike anything else being played today.
Act of Congress’s story began as many bands do: two guys met in college, found a shared love of music, and struck up a band. Here, however, the story sharply diverges from the norm. Founding members Chris Griffin and Adam Wright picked up a stand-up bassist, Tim Carrol, while he was working as a session musician for a heavy metal band, and they completed their quartet with the addition of ten-state fiddle champ Bethany Borg (later replaced by Connie Skellie). They called themselves Act of Congress, a cheeky nod to the seemingly impossible task of coordinating the members’ busy schedules for practice sessions, and though the four brought to the table a wide range of musical credentials—rock, jazz, folk, and classical—not a single member had a background in bluegrass. This did nothing, however, to prevent the band from diving into the genre head first, and perhaps it was this organic arrival that left Act of Congress free to mix and experiment, incorporating bluegrass traditions into a buoyant, upbeat acoustics, fostering a respect that went beyond a debt of inheritance, and freeing a sound that grew unhindered by the constraints of tradition.
Unlike many aspiring musicians, Act of Congress chose to skip the dizzying gerbil wheel of album-tour-album, and instead opted to ride the wedding circuit, playing original tunes alongside acoustic spins of classic wedding fare from Motown to Michael Jackson. Besides teaching the band to work a crowd (their live shows are a must-see for Birmingham visitors), playing as an events band wrung any potential artistic snobbery from the band, lending them with an enviable air of sincerity that bleeds into every aspect of their sound.
One would be mistaken, however, to misinterpret a lack of pretention as a lack of ability. The band’s albums are filled with sweet soul-ache of high bluegrass harmonies, intricately-wrought instrumentation, and artfully simple lyrics brimming with joy and lament. The fluid composition of the Act of Congress sound makes the band infinitely adaptable, and they appear to be just as at home playing alongside black-tied symphonies in concert halls as black-clad hipsters at (infamously “weird”) Austin’s SXSW festival. With a sound that is full of earnest enthusiasm and old-school, acoustic charm, Act of Congress is redefining the pop genre, and is, hopefully, the hallmark of great things to come.
Listen to Act of Congress