By Carmen Brown
Photos by Mary-Gates Allen, Kellen Coldiron, Church of the Highlands & contributed
Now into its 14th year as a band with two EPs and four albums, Act of Congress–Connie Skellie, Chris Griffin, Adam Wright and Tim Carroll Jr.,–has become known as one of the “Must See Live Acts of Alabama” and has opened for artists including Toby Keith, John Mayer, Sara Evans, Edwin McCain and Taylor Hicks. The band just wrapped up what Connie calls “an incredible year,” playing weddings and shows in Birmingham and all over the country, including a two-day wedding event at the Montage Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton, South Carolina. The band recently had its sixth collaboration with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, which had more than 2,000 in attendance, causing the show to be pushed back 15 minutes due to all of the fans trying to get into the venue.
“Shout out to all of you who fought the traffic and filled the room,” Connie says. “Your support is why we are able to continue living this dream.”
So what makes this band stand out? Act of Congress plays only acoustic instruments in their music, giving them a one-of-a-kind sound that combines several genres of music including bluegrass, folk and pop.
“We use our instruments and voices to create energy, and oftentimes, people are left wondering how only four people can make such a full sound,” Connie says.
Tim describes their sound as “very eclectic.”
“We have found that we appeal to a wide range of ages and demographics, which allows everyone to enjoy themselves at our shows,” he says.
It took an Act of Congress
Although Chris says they have played for a few governors and members of Congress, the band’s name had nothing specifically to do with Washington. Chris and Adam met while students at the University of Montevallo. At the time, Adam was playing guitar and Chris was playing the mandolin, and they were interested in merging the sounds of progressive bluegrass with soft pop using acoustic instruments. In the early days of practicing while in college, Chris says it was mentioned that working together around everyone’s schedule would take—you guessed it—an “Act of Congress.”
But, they made it happen.
“The band was originally a three-piece jam band with another member,” Chris says. “He wanted to stop after a year or so. I remember after that meeting going to lunch with Adam, and we decided to keep it rolling.”
Connie’s participation in the band began at a local restaurant, discussing the possibilities of continuing Act of Congress.
“My husband and I had played music with Adam, and I knew Chris and Tim from the musical circles we were involved in,” Connie says. “Even though I declined the offer initially, I had another opportunity a few years later to rejoin the group.”
As timing would have it, the first project that Connie, Adam, Tim and Chris worked on together as a group was a song Adam was working on called, “chance meeting.”
“Isn’t that an appropriate title? It’s still a favorite today. The humble beginnings have led to wonderful opportunities to share our music with people all around the world,” Connie says.
Growing Up on Music
All of the members had a passion for music since they were children. Connie began taking violin lessons when she was just 3 years old.
“Violin was a major part of my growing up with the most wonderful teachers, Jeffrey and Angela Flaniken, helping to guide me through the difficulties and beauty of classical music,” Connie says.
However, she admits that singing is her true joy.
“Sarah Lumpkin was my choir teacher at Briarwood from the time I was in grade school through most of my high school years,” Connie says. “I can’t say enough about the impact she had in my life just by encouraging me and finding ways to make me a better vocalist, whether it was all state competitions, solo vocal competitions or musicals.”
Connie was awarded a full vocal scholarship at Jefferson State Community College where she trained under Todd Norton, whom she describes as “humble and talented.”
“When I look back on my musical journey leading up to Act of Congress, it’s easy to see that all of these musical endeavors helped me to be able to step into that role and continue the process of learning and growing,” she says.
Act of Congress is known for incorporating whistling into songs. When Connie was 12, she learned about a whistling competition where the winning piece, Méditation from Thaïs, was the exact piece she was learning on the violin.
“I honestly couldn’t believe how beautiful it sounded. From that moment on, I spent my entire sixth grade year learning how to whistle,” she says. “There have been a few times that a smile has run across my face during a whistle solo. It’s really hard to whistle when you are smiling!”
Having started playing since the fourth grade, Chris grew up on rock guitarists of the ‘90s, including Steve Vai and Joe Satriani.
“My parents were very supportive with lessons,” Chris says. “I had some great teachers growing up. In college I discovered the newgrass band, Nickel Creek. They were very influential in my early adult years.”
Adam started playing piano in the third grade and was always involved with music in school as well as church. He began playing guitar and writing songs in high school and later played the mandolin in college.
“In high school, Ben Folds kept the piano fun for me,” Adam says. “I’d spend hours learning his songs note for note on the piano. He has such a natural sense of melody, and his style was and still is so unique.”
Like Chris, Adam says Nickel Creek also grew his love and appreciation for acoustic music.
“In a world full of synthesizers and drum machines, there’s something really authentic about an acoustic performance,” Adam says.
Tim started playing cello in his school’s “strings” class in sixth grade and then moved to bass in seventh grade.
“Early on it was all classical music for me, but once I got to high school, I started playing in the jazz band and marching band as well as the local youth symphony,” Tim says.
Sharing Music with the World
The band has been on five tours for the U.S. State Department as U.S. Cultural Ambassadors, traveling to countries including Thailand, Bali and Saudi Arabia. Connie describes their participation in the program as a “gift” to the members of the band, showing how music bridged the gap between cultural differences.
“I remember playing outside of Liberia in a small village, where no one spoke English. We couldn’t communicate with the crowd, but when we played that first note, we were all united,” Connie says. “The president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was poised and elegant. It was an honor to play at their celebration.”
Connie says she remembers their beautiful smiles and happy faces as they clapped their hands to the beat.
“The music filled that room, and it united us,” Connie says. “It’s a powerful thing to see that happen over and over again.”
Adam says when the band toured Jordan, they had the unique opportunity to play in an ancient colosseum.
“Tim was playing with a borrowed bass that folded up and fit in a box. The bass had been faithful the entirety of the tour until this final performance. Right in the middle of our final song, the bridge slipped out from under the strings. BAM! The sound was so loud! There really wasn’t a way to recover after that. We looked at each other for a moment, then thanked the audience and left. It was pretty funny.”
Back at home, Act of Congress has become a popular band of choice for weddings, with the band often playing the ceremony and reception.
“The ceremony has a classical quartet feel, while the reception feels very Motown and current,” Chris says. “Adam and Connie are both fantastic singers, and we’ve learned over the years how to get people dancing and having a good time.”
Act of Congress is also known for their Christmas songs and performances that resonate with their fans.
“Our Christmas music is special and unique,” Connie says. “Every note has a purpose. We put our very heart and soul into the creative process of arranging these songs.”
At the end of last year, Act of Congress played their brand-new song, “We Three Kings,” at Church of the Highlands for the church’s Christmas services. The band then rang in the New Year with a five-hour set at The Club on New Year’s Eve.
“It’s such an incredible process to take a song like that and make it our very own,” Connie says. “All of the grueling hours of work seem to pay off when you walk out of the studio with a product you are proud of.”
As they look to the future, they’re grateful that their band has become like a second family.
“Even though we don’t spend much time together outside of our rehearsals, traveling and performances, we support and love each other very much,” Connie says.
“I’m constantly reminded how thankful I am for these friendships and the tremendous blessing it is to collectively share this wonderful gift with others,” he says.
To learn more about Act of Congress and the band’s upcoming performances, visit actofcongressmusic.com.
Listen to Act of Congress’s Albums
- Love RemainsEP – March 13, 2008
- Declaration– September 5, 2008
- Cover UpEP – October 1, 2009
- Christmas Vol. 1EP – November 24, 2011
- Worth Fighting For– March 27, 2012
- The Christmas Collection– November 4, 2016