For people who write about music, the best part of the job isn’t meeting the occasional rock star. It’s watching deserving talent gain major momentum right before your eyes.
When the War and Treaty played Florida’s 30A Songwriters Festival in January of 2018, they hadn’t yet recorded their Buddy Miller-produced debut album, Healing Tide, and their set at an out-of-the-way restaurant entertained more staff than patrons. That April, a curious crowd, most not yet familiar with Michael Trotter Jr.’s and Tanya Blount-Trotter’s dynamic soul-gospel groove, stood before a small stage at the Old Settler’s Music Festival in Tilmon, Texas — and became so captivated by the pair’s vocal prowess, palpable chemistry and uplifting spirit, not even a heavy downpour chased them away.
And when that storm cut the band’s set short, the couple waded into the audience to personally thank everyone for listening — their desire to express gratitude overwhelming any concern about staying dry. (Afterward, Trotter and their “love child,” Legend, gleefully puddle-jumped outside a backstage tent.)
Their album came out that August. At January 2019’s 30A fest, they played the mainstage with a full-on soul revue that was so energized, it heated up 5,000 freezing fans. That Sept. 11, during the Americana Music Association’s Americana Music Honors & Awards presentation at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, they performed a mesmerizing “Love Like There’s No Tomorrow,” accompanied only by his foot stomps and her tambourine taps. When they were named Emerging Act of the Year, they used the moment to discuss Trotter’s Iraq War-induced PTSD and dedicated the award to vets and their families. Even grizzled music-biz elders wiped tears while listening to their emotional speech.
A few weeks ago, the War and Treaty released their second album, Hearts Town, which quickly reached No. 5 on the AMA’s albums chart. They performed its first single, “Five More Minutes” — its hook inspired by the words Blount-Trotter uttered while talking her husband out of committing suicide — on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert; it’s still at No. 2 on the AMA singles chart. On Nov. 10, they’re recording their Austin City Limits debut, which will live-stream on the show’s website at 8 p.m. CST, and air later in the season. (The date was moved from the previously announced Nov. 5 slot.)
ACL executive producer and host Terry Lickona hadn’t even heard of the War and Treaty until he saw them at that awards show.
“I was just blown away, and I decided we had to get them down here,” he says. “And we have been trying to make this show happen ever since.”
They’ve also given American Songwriter an exclusive clip, captured during their Colbert taping, to whet appetites for their ACL session. Their performance of “Hey Pretty Moon,” one of the strongest tracks on an album of many, is so soulful, one can imagine Ray Charles’ ghost — and Aretha’s and Etta James’ — smiling in approval. The Voice coach John Legend would spin his chair around immediately — if he hadn’t already booked them to open his 2020 (now 2021) tour after they sang in January’s Grammy Awards tribute to longtime producer Ken Ehrlich.
voices rise together on this song, then break into alternating growls, only to
soar again, they turn the bluesy number into showstopping drama. Their live
sets are full of such ecstasy-inducing moments — not to mention a physical connection
as powerful as their emotional bond. They’re a sexy couple, and “Five More
Minutes” is one of several songs on Hearts Town that convey facets of the
passion they manifest onstage and in life.
“With every song, we try to convey a piece of who we are,” says Blount-Trotter, speaking via phone from their Nashville home. The joy of listening to two artists who complement one another so completely, and the thrill of witnessing their career take off, only multiply once they divulge some background details.
Blount-Trotter was born and raised in the Washington, D.C., area, where she began singing in church as a child. She was still a teen when she appeared in the film Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, duetting with Lauryn Hill on “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” She signed to Polydor Records, recorded an album, placed a few singles on Billboard’s R&B chart and got a music scholarship to Morgan State University in Baltimore. That led to musical theater and a deal with Sean Combs’ Bad Boy Records, though she never released music on that label.
she became a mother and wife — then fled from her abusive husband. During Trotter’s
childhood in Cleveland, Ohio, his mother had done the same, moving into a
secret women’s shelter with her son. She also sang with him. (They first duetted
on a song from a film they’d watch at the shelter: “His Eye is on the Sparrow,”
from Sister Act 2.)
But he’s never studied music formally; remarkably, his formidable chops — which include writing all of their music and producing Hearts Town — are all self-taught.
“I actually learned how to play the piano in Baghdad, Iraq, on one of Saddam’s pianos,” Trotter reveals. While he was a soldier stationed in one of Hussein’s captured palaces, a benevolent captain who knew he needed to soothe his combat anxiety discovered the upright and encouraged him to use it.
He penned his first song when that captain was killed; soon, he was performing regularly at military services for fallen soldiers. When he came home after his second tour, he tried to pursue a music career. But it was a struggle. PTSD and depression took their toll; Trotter and his wife, with whom he had two children, split. Again, he faced homelessness.
“My arms and my legs and my back have tasted the asphalt of America,” he says. “I know how it feels to sleep on the street, sleep on the park bench. I know how it feels to be afraid — and go and sleep literally on top of the monkey bars of a local park.”
Those experiences have made empathy a guiding principle of their lives. “For us, it’s just a no brainer to see a person or situation and put yourself in that position, and think about how that person must feel,” Blount-Trotter says. “… Something inside of you just drives you to say, ‘This person needs to be cared for,’ or ‘this person needs a place to stay’ or ‘this person might need an extra dose of love.’ … It becomes second nature if you do it all the time … it just becomes a part of your DNA that this is how you respond; this is the way you want your world, if not the world, to be.”
They started building their world in Baltimore, where they met in 2010 when Trotter performed at a fundraising festival Blount-Trotter was cohosting. Lured by the honesty she heard in his songs, she asked him if he might be interested in collaborating. They traded numbers, but he didn’t call. She did. Their friendship grew, and blossomed into love. They joined forces musically in 2014. But she didn’t even know about his combat history, much less his PTSD, till a few years into their marriage, when July 4 fireworks caused a panic attack he couldn’t hide. He finally began therapy. They also relocated from Albion, Michigan, where they’d moved after discovering it while getting lost on a trip, to Nashville — which turned out to be a great decision.
Not only did they develop a relationship with Buddy Miller, they also built friendships with artists such as Jason Isbell, who sings and plays electric guitar on the moving song, “Beautiful,” about the death of Blount-Trotter’s mother, and Jerry Douglas, who plays Dobro — alongside Chris Eldridge’s acoustic guitar — on “Hustlin’.”
“The collaboration, the community, being able to be a part of things … with a lot Nashville’s legendary producers and songwriters, has been great for us,” Blount-Trotter says. They’re also making an impact on a scene that has lacked much representation by people of color.
“We realized that we are a part of the difference in Nashville — a different story that Nashville needs to tell, and I believe, wants to tell,” Trotter says, “whether it be the story of the newest queen of country music herself, Miss Mickey Guyton, or the story of Mr. Kane Brown, or the story of our queen of country soul, which is Yola, or the story of the king and queen of country gospel, which is the War and Treaty.”
They haven’t exactly been handed gem-dripping crowns (yet), but in the realm of Americana — including country gospel — they’ve already earned their thrones.
Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount-Trotter of the War and Treaty performing at the 2019 30A Songwriters Festival. Photo by Lynne Margolis