More often than not, it seems, the telling of the story of the War and Treaty begins with the war, specifically a piano in the basement of one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. It is a tantalizing tale, and we’ll get to that.
But this time, let’s start with the Treaty: the moment Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount first met and two formidable talents took hold in life and in music.
“We have probably two different accounts,” Michael says by phone from Nashville, Tanya audible in the background, laughing as she agrees with the prediction.
Spoiler alert: There is to be much laughter in the ensuing chat, from giggles to hearty peals, and much weighing in from whoever doesn’t have hold of the receiver. And some tears and choking up too. It’s a real delight, everything up-front and on the table, just as anyone who has seen them perform would expect, and every bit of it captured in their new debut album, Healing Tide, a wonder of gospel-soul-country-rock-folk carried on their from-the-heart vocals, both of them capable of gale-force belting and whispered-breeze tenderness, sometimes, somehow, both at once.
It’s a love story through and through, evidenced in song titles along: “Love Like There’s No Tomorrow” (the album’s foot-stomping gospel invocation), “Are You Ready to Love Me?,” (swampy Southern soul), “Here Is Where the Loving Is” (fiddles and guitars and Emmylou Harris!) among them. And a belief that love is contagious, that it can repair the world — the boisterous title song (a bit of Ike and Tina and a lot of Delaney & Bonnie, perhaps), the steamed-windows twinkle of “Jeep Cherokee Laredo.” And in “One and the Same” they have given us unity anthem for the ages. All of the ages. And in album-closing “Little New Bern,” Michael wrote a vivid ode to Tanya’s large, loving family and the former plantation land where it began and at which all the cousins still gather with her grandparents (73 years of marriage!) every summer.
But back to that meeting: “I remember going to Laurel Lakes Park for an event, the Love Festival, Aug. 28, 2010,” he says of a day of music in Laurel, Maryland, near where each lived at the time, at which they were both scheduled to perform. “I was led under this awning and I saw this most beautiful woman I ever saw in my life.”
A “wow” is heard in the background, as if she’s never heard this before.
“And she did what any beautiful woman would have done with a slouch like me. She ignored me,” he says. “We introduced ourselves and she thought nothing of me. I thought everything of her. So I got on stage and performed, and then after I saw this woman running across the field in heels toward the stage, and it was her. She just wanted to know about my songwriting. The rest is history.”
Tanya grabs the phone: “He’s kinda telling the truth,” she allows. “Mine is the part where he says I ignored him. I was out there with some friends and a young lady working with me at the festival kind of whisked me away and said, ‘I want you to meet Michael.’ Which kind of came as he said it. It may come off as I was ignoring him. But I wasn’t. I was trying to do two things at once.”
As to her reaction to his songs, well, on that she agrees wholeheartedly.
“Oh my goodness! I lost my mind!” she says. “After he finished performing I ran over and bought six of the CDs he had and was a crazy person handing them out to people — ‘This is the best thing I’ve heard!’ He was amazing.”
“We exchanged numbers — and he would have a different account here,” Tanya says. “He lost my number! Threw it in the trash can. So I proceeded to call him and ask him if he could write songs for my brother and I. We were working on a project. I invited him over to the house. He wrote 10 songs in about two hours. He had songs ready, came over and sang them to me and we became friends, inseparable friends. And after I had a birthday party, that was September of 2010, and from there, the next day, we never separated. He moved into my house the next day.”
“You know? That’s accurate.”
Okay, then. Now let’s skip ahead to March this year, when the couple, having made their home in Albion, Michigan, found themselves in Nashville, being produced by Buddy Miller at his house — “We wanted to give Buddy Miller a chance to be discovered,” Michael says, barely containing silly giggles. “Just wanted to help him out” — and surrounded by such stellar musicians as drummer Brady Blade, fiddler Sam Bush, pedal steel and banjo player Russ Pahl and multi-instrumentalist Jim Hoke, realizing the love-filled vision they’d been honing tirelessly in the intervening years.
Oh, and there’s Emmylou Harris climbing the porch stairs, not only to add her voice to “Here Is Where the Loving Is At,” but to deliver a batch of birthday brownies to Michael one day.
“Another lady who might need to be discovered,” Michael says, not succeeding at holding back the giggles, before adding, “Everyone knows her for her singing, but people don’t know she makes the BEST BROWNIES EVER.”
The sound is a realization of an array of influences and passions, some shared ones including Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, the gospel icons the Gaither Singers and James Cleveland. A big influence when they started performing together, Michael says, was the Civil Wars — he sheepishly notes running into that act’s John Paul White and, tongue-tied, blurting out that his act was called the Civil Wars. But what the War and Treaty draw on together is distinctly their musical DNA.
“We really have different backgrounds,” Tanya says. “My mom was from Panama. I grew up listening to Calypso and opera. My dad was from New Bern, North Carolina, and we also listened to Christian music, gospel, but also secular music — Whitney Houston. A plethora of sounds growing up. My dad loved western, so some country songs. We would have a guitar player in church, or sometimes just foot-stomping and clapping. ‘Love Like There’s No Tomorrow’ comes from that. Michael comes from a Seventh Day Adventist background and grew up listening to incredible harmonies and some of his writing comes out of that. His uncle Zilbert Trotter plays organ like no one I ever heard before. We took all that and married it together and it came together with the help of Buddy Miller as a beautiful piece of art.”
Though they’d made a well-received EP, Down to the River, spawning some viral videos to match the word-of-mouth from their dynamic concert performances, this was a whole other world for them, with new expectations, intimidating ones.
“When you get those musicians in the room, they know that no matter what accolades they have, they say, ‘Lead us,’” Michael says. “I had to learn to lead. Buddy Miller is not going to let you escape that responsibility. You come in and have a vision, he’s going to hold you to it. He’s a sweet man, but he has a way to make sure you stay authentic. He’s not going to do take 17, take 18. We did two takes of everything. We had it in the first one. Did the second one because Buddy felt guilty that we had it in the first one.”
He continues, “They all wanted to see where I wanted to go — show us what you’ve got. The intimidation factor was sky high. I don’t consider myself of the caliber of those giants, but then you have to believe you belong there. I remember playing my minor 7ths and diminished chords and this and that and they were laughing, had to explain to me what I was doing. Russ Pahl said, ‘How does it feel to have millions of dollars of education, and never gone to school a day in your life?’ I said, ‘Feels pretty good, Russ.’ He popped me on the head with a wad of paper and walked away.”
The closest he had ever gotten to a music education was under the most unusual circumstances, which brings us back to Saddam’s piano. Michael, having enlisted in the Army in 2003, was sent to Iraq, scared and unprepared. He found himself in a platoon stationed in one of Hussein’s abandoned palaces. A captain heard him sing, heard the inspirational power of his voice and took him to the basement where there was a piano and told him to go at it, learn to play, make music. Not long after, the captain was killed and Michael was asked to sing at his service, the first time he ever sang a song he wrote in public.
But as he talks here, that wasn’t the part of the Iraq story he wanted to tell.
“No one knows this,” he confides. “This is special. I was singing in Baghdad once, and it was probably two in the morning, singing to the troops. And they were singing and clapping with me. And one of the soldiers on guard duty said, ‘You all gotta come see this!’ And when I looked over the gate, the Iraqis with their tea were sitting down at the gate, listening to me sing. And they were clapping and patting their thighs with me. That’s the power of music, the power of songwriting. The war stopped for at least 30 minutes.”
That’s the kind of thing he remembers as his and Tanya’s life accelerates, as success builds and the demands grow — not least being having to spend more time away from their child.
“I’ve cried on the road and broken down,” Michael says. “We travel with our son, but time has now come where we have to leave him with someone for two or three weeks at a time, all for the call of the mission and honoring our life.”
That mission. That call.
“I’m singing with my wife, songs I wrote for us, and we’re on the road and helping bridge humanity in our way. Toughest thing we have to deal with is leaving our son. But no one’s calling us derogatory words.”
He cites a couple of rough epithets that in past have been hurled at many from various directions.
“No one is doing that. There are no signs that you have to drink from the black water fountain. That’s not happening,” he says. “We are blessed that we have not faced it that way. We have a multi-cultural band that reminds folks of what we have overcome. I’m not here to promote the black race or white race, but am genuinely invested in unifying the human race. I do believe there ain’t no better thing in life. I’m almost coming to tears just thinking about if Dr. King’s dream can be a reality daily. We make sure at every concert that everyone hugs each other and tells each other they matter, black or white, foreign or domestic. We are all human beings.”
As the song says, with equal grace and power, we are all “One and the Same.”
Tanya puts it simply and profoundly: “This project is an act of love.”
Photo credit: David McClister