Wednesday evening (Nov. 9), married duo The War and Treaty’s Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Trotter will make their Country Music Association Awards debut performance, for a rendition of The Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (But I Like It)” with fellow duo Brothers Osborne.
The scene of one of Americana music’s highly-awarded duos (they are the reigning Americana Music Honors & Awards duo/group of the year), standing on country music’s biggest stage and infusing their unique brand of soulful harmonies into a rock n’ roll classic alongside one of country music’s award-winning (and most inclusive) duos seemingly encapsulates not only the range of The War and Treaty’s musical amalgam, but also the strides The War and Treaty has made over the past few years.
“We’ve been friends with Brothers Osborne prior to this, and we’ve talked about touring with them. This project came along and it was the perfect timing, and with us both being duos and both being from Maryland, there were a lot of things in common,” Tanya Trotter tells Billboard.
But that’s not the only thing this married duo is celebrating. Today, they further build upon that synergy with the surprise release of their four-song EP, Blank Page, produced by Dave Cobb (known for his work with Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton and more)
The EP’s origins came in 2020, during the early days of the pandemic the duo performed as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s “Big Night at the Museum” where they sang “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” written and first released by Don Gibson, and later recorded by Ray Charles as part of his influential 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Charles’ version of the song stayed atop Billboard’s Hot 100 for five weeks in 1962.
“[Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s senior director, producer and writer] Peter Cooper invited us to play piano and sing, and Dave Cobb was the producer and engineer of audio for that,” says Trotter Jr. says. “One evening Dave called me and said, ‘Get over to RCA Studio now,’ and he hangs up. I’m like, ‘Wow, Well, Dave Cobb’s asking this, so something’s up.’ We get there and he’s got all the lights down low, it’s moody in the studio. And he plays ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ from Ray Charles. I thought, ‘Oh, man, he’s going to show us all we didn’t do. It’s Ray Charles — nobody can live up to that.’
“But then he said, ‘This sound that you’re hearing, these are the original panels that Ray Charles used when he recorded this right here in RCA.’ Then he played our version with those same recording panels and settings. I looked at Tanya and we both literally started crying at the same time. It was just so beautiful and so emotional. Dave said, ‘We gotta do a record.’”
The duo’s musical melding connects two musicians whose artistry has been forged by years of successes and hardships. In 1993, Tanya landed a role in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, with a memorable scene performing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” alongside Lauryn Hill. She followed with the 1994 album Natural Thing, which included “Through the Rain,” which reached No. 27 on what was then known as Hot R&B Singles (now called Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs).
Meanwhile, Trotter grew up immersed in gospel and classic R&B. He moved to Washington D.C. as a teenager and enlisted in the United States Army in 2003. He ended up in Baghdad, camped out with the rest of his unit in the dilapidated remains of one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. In the basement was a piano, and it was there that Trotter Jr. began experimenting with playing piano, crafting melodies, evolving them into songs. He wrote and performed one of his earliest songs, “Dear Martha,” to honor a friend and fallen soldier. From there, Trotter Jr. was instructed to write and perform songs to honor his fallen comrades at their memorial services.
Fast forward to 2010, when he had been hired to perform at a music festival in Maryland, where he met Tanya. The professional admiration quickly became personal. They married, and by 2014, they had formed their duo, first performing as Trotter and Blount and releasing the 2016 album Love Affair, and eventually changing their name to The War and Treaty and releasing the 2018 album Healing Tide. Their innate talent and a multifarious sound blending country, R&B and soul swiftly gained attention from those in the music community.
Healing Tide featured a collaboration with Emmylou Harris, and they have worked with Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell and more. In 2021, they closed out the Academy of Country Music Awards with Dierks Bentley and Larkin Poe with a rendition of U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love),” a song Bentley previously covered as part of his 2010 album Up on the Ridge.
Along the way, they have unhesitatingly written songs that delve not only into the highs of their decade-plus relationship, but devastating lows, heartaches and struggles.
“Five More Minutes,” the fulcrum of their 2020 album Hearts Town was inspired directly by a moment in 2017, when Trotter Jr. was going through deep depression and contemplating suicide while struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his time serving in Iraq, in the Army’s 6th Infantry Regiment. The song’s title reflects his wife Tanya Blount Trotter’s petition to give her more time with him.
On Blank Page, that candor continues, notably focusing on the often under-examined nuances and efforts that make a relationship work in the soaring ballad “That’s How Love Is Made,” co-written with Dave Barnes. The song marks the first time they have included a co-writer on a song on one of their albums.
“Tanya and I finally gave into that,” Trotter Jr. says. “We felt like in order to get the respect we wanted, we needed to do everything ourselves, so that there’s no question there that we’re talented. But we’re learning that that’s not how it goes. Talent is important, but also, can you work with someone? Can you coexist with someone? That’s what we’re seeing in our country too. To be able to live peaceably is a talent.”
“You hear a lot of love songs, but no one talks about how you make a relationship work or not work,” Tanya says.
“My sweet wife approached the song from the angle of exposing the things we say versus the things we do,” Trotter Jr. adds. “And full disclosure, I have been guilty of that kind of behavior, really just getting by throughout the day and then expecting so much of my wife. You can’t treat somebody like s–t all day and then expect for them to treat you like heaven. I was really thinking of the contrast. That’s not how love is made and I feel like we got real with that. I hope those that listen to those lyrics examine them and really have ‘A Ha’ moments. It’s never too late to realize you’re being an a**hole and decide to fix it.”
The title track contends the importance of allowing a relationship to grow unencumbered by scars from past relationships.
“When you meet someone for the first time, you have an opportunity to create something together from a blank page. How many times do you hear, ‘I went through this breakup and this heartbreak before I finally got to The One?’ We were like, ‘That can’t be our foundation. You’re a blank page.’”
The only outside song on the EP comes courtesy of “Dumb Luck,” written by Beau Bedford.
“We think, ‘How did we get here? How did we survive? How did I get so lucky to be in love with the greatest human on Earth?’ It’s dumb luck,” Trotter Jr. says, name-checking an Americana music luminary and one of the duo’s strongest supporters, the late John Prine. “John lived his best life and he beat the hell out of cancer over and over again [before his passing in 2020 due to complications from COVID-19]. And he would say, ‘I’m just lucky.’”
The duo knows that feeling well; In 2020, Tanya also went through her own health crisis with COVID-19.
“Tanya caught COVID very early in the game,” Trotter Jr. recalls, “and it could have gone the other way for her. There were so many moment where me and our son would sit outside of her bedroom door and try to see if we could hear her breathing. We didn’t know what was going on and we had never seen Tanya not only that weak, but that vulnerable. But she survived.”
The duo has already proven themselves a constituent of the Americana music scene. But last year, they went through a period with no label home and no management, before aligning with Mary Hilliard Harrington (who manages Bentley) in September 2021, and earlier this year signing with one of country music’s top labels, UMG Nashville. They are signed with WME for booking.
“It was like the universe was trying to tell us something,” Trotter Jr. says, “and Tanya is a manifester in our house. She has what she calls the Pink Room, where she writes things that she wants to see happen and she writes them on the walls and it’s beautiful. A major recording contract was on that wall, CMAs were on that wall, Grammys were on that wall. But also people care about and were thinking of. Lainey Wilson’s dad’s name was on that wall. Dave Cobb’s mom’s name was on that wall.”
They say Hilliard Harrington was a key factor in their recent signing with country music power label UMG Nashville, a move that puts them in a position to far expand the reach of sterling music.
“We were getting ready to jump the gun because another label wanted us, but they were not as strong and powerful as UMG. But that’s why you have a Mary Hilliard in your life — someone who’s been there and knows how to slow you down. She said two things to me, personally. She said, ‘I need you to trust me, hold on for a minute. I think there is interest with you all at a higher level.’ And she was right. Within two weeks were were getting ready to sign with UMG. And then she also said, ‘If you’re gonna play, I want you to play big, because I don’t lose.’ I was like, ‘Holy s–t, boss lady. Okay, you remind me of Tanya. Y’all are straight up ballsy.’ And UMG has rolled out a red carpet for us from the moment we began talking with them, and that has not rolled up yet. We feel so honored.”
They have found champions not only within the label staff, but among their UMG labelmates.
“With Mickey [Guyton], we text all the time. Every time something happens with War and Treaty, Mickey’s probably the first artist to text us and go, ‘God’s using y’all. You gonna change the world.’ Brothers Osborne are wonderful, and another angel of ours been Jordan Davis, just affirming to us that our art matters to him. And of course, the OG Dierks Bentley,” Trotter Jr. says.
The EP is just a sampling of the music fans can expect when a full-fledged album follows in 2023.
“We are hoping that people will be able to see themselves and feel themselves in the new album,” he adds. “When we started this, there was a temptation there to try to write something that reflects where the industry is, especially in country music, to have that big drinking banger or to have that big banger song, but we want to just make them feel. When [Tanya] sings, it reminds you of Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, some Stapleton. Our love might sound like a rock and roll song, or R&B or blues or country — but at the end of the day, it sounds like our love.”