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The War and Treaty's songs of ardent commitment find deeper clarity on 'Lover's Game'

"We check in with each other all the time," says Michael Trotter Jr. of The War and Treaty. "I believe that what you hear with the record is a deeper understanding of who we are becoming to each other."
Austin Hargrave
"We check in with each other all the time," says Michael Trotter Jr. of The War and Treaty. "I believe that what you hear with the record is a deeper understanding of who we are becoming to each other."

The War and Treaty came in hot back in 2017, giving house-wrecking performances at the Americana Music Festival and every other stage that would have them. Matched in music and marriage, after separately enduring a youthful bout with the music industry and a life-altering tour of duty in Iraq, Tanya and Michael Trotter Jr. had a striking duo dynamic. They grasped what they could do with Black gospel's galvanizing call-and-response patterns, they'd taken notes from the breathlessly theatrical crescendos of their recent predecessors The Civil Wars and they stoked the fervent fires of their own singing with strenuous exhortation and unfailing poise. Theirs was, and still is, music of ardent commitment.

Last spring, I took note of signs that the War and Treaty might be in pursuit of somewhat subtler revelations. During the Country Music Hall of Fame's medallion ceremony that May, it was one of the acts invited to pay tribute to posthumous inductee Ray Charles. The duo's reading of "You Don't Know Me," from Charles' countrypolitan magnum opus Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, turned the ache of being invisible to a would-be flame into a sumptuous, mutual confession of insecure desire.

That ultimate destination turned out to be Lover's Game, the first War and Treaty full-length released on a major country label (Mercury Nashville). With industrious producer Dave Cobb, the two work up naturalistic, slow-burning, piano-driven arrangements of several of their originals, songs that spill over with devotion or need or take on the relational labor of giving comfort instead of slipping into cruel indifference. The Trotters sing them with a grown-up sense of pacing and phrasing, lingering here and there on meaning that's hard to express.

In a conference room overlooking Music Row, they talked about the tradition of deeply felt, slowly unfolding pop, country, soul and R&B ballads and duets they're tapping into, the connections they see between the performing styles and gracious personas of predecessors and how they've repositioned themselves professionally with all of that in mind.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jewly Hight: When you've gone back to the archives, what have you found that's especially useful or inspiring to you?

Tanya Trotter: Well, we've been definitely studying Kenny Rogers and Dottie West and Dolly Parton and Ashford and Simpson.

Michael Trotter Jr.: Are you tired of those records yet? Are you tired of me playing them all the time?

Tanya: I'm not! What I love about all of the people that we are studying is that they were kind people. I think that that transcends your talent. A lot of times, when you look at this person on an interview, that same energy transitions into their sound, whether it's the joy of Tina Turner — watching her interview, the smile, the energy, the overcoming, the resilience — you see that on stage. Whether it's the class and the love that Kenny Rogers has for his wife. You feel that when you see his performance on stage. Ashford and Simpson, we had an opportunity to meet Valerie Simpson. I've met her before, but to see her with her husband and the connection that was there, then to see the missing piece gone and her still having the wherewithal to keep the legacy going. We've been studying that. Michael plays the music over and over and over again. He even started dressing like Kenny Rogers for one show. I was like, "Okay I think we're going too far."

Michael: [Laughs]

You're speaking to multiple dimensions of performing and presentation. So let's give that kind of attention to your recording of one of your new songs, "Have You A Heart." I hear it acknowledging the reassurance people need from each other even in a long-term relationship. What did you want to convey not just in your lyrics, but how you sing them, your phrasing and inflections, your slow-building urgency?

Michael: That song is special. Because it's asking one of the most important questions one person can ask another. Another would be, "Do you trust me?" That's a loaded question, because you really got to answer that truthfully. When I was going to war, that was a question posed to me. I had to think about that. I came out of the war in 2007, and I would get that question again from the woman I would spend the rest of my life with, my beautiful wife, Tanya. This time, it was, "I don't care about your stats. I don't care about what you don't got and what you do got. The question I have for you is, do you have a heart? Can you feel? Do you have a moral compass? Are you a good man? And if you have a heart, can you have that heart for me?"

I was broken. I had already failed once in a marriage. And then I had several failures after that in relationships. By the time I entered into Tanya's world, I just was not wanting to fail again. And I realized that the problem was actually I didn't know the kind of heart I had. What we want listeners to know is out of all the songs we have, this one's dedicated to you. This album isn't about whether you like the music or not. This album is about, "Do you understand what we're trying to say? Can you get with this? Do you feel the inclusion in our voices? Do you feel the resilience? Do you feel the overcoming? And if you feel it, do you have a heart for the War and Treaty? Are you ready to go on this journey with us? Because we don't want to go there without you."

Your performance builds at this artfully measured pace. By the time you join your voices together at the chorus, there's this urgent pursuit of an answer.

Michael: When you're trying to see if someone's going to go to the next place with you, there's an excitement. There's an urgency there that you have inside of you. And I think the vocals, how we interpreted those lyrics, the fans will hopefully feel that, feel the climax, feel the pacing.

Originally the song was real quiet and real light. I remember when Dave [Cobb] got a hold of it and we were playing and it just had this natural sound and tempo and beat that was so familiar and reminiscent of the way we grew up, the church we came from. You can almost hear the ancestry spiritually. And once Tanya goes there [vocally], we're going to go all the way there.

At one point in the process, Tanya was very sick with COVID-19 and you were physically separated. What sort of music came out of that?

Michael: I remember just carrying Tanya's food to her door and knocking on it. I don't think people really understand; Tanya was in bad shape. She was a part of the first wave that caught it. I've never seen her that weak and that broken and that sick. It softened our entire household. It put all of us in the position where we realized that there's an urgency to love, and to let someone know how much you love them.

But it wasn't just Tanya. This album also was born out of situations we were reading about and some situations we were going through. I had a lot of family members pass on. We couldn't be there. My favorite uncle, Delbert Trotter, he's the one who taught me everything — music, class, how to handle myself in public. I remember saying goodbye on a phone and not being able to hear him say anything back. I needed this album, I needed this time to just cleanse and purge and to recommit myself to the mission of love.

The War and Treaty has always been about exploring the dynamics of what you can do alongside each other. But I sense that there's a greater sense of clarity on this album about what your music is about, that it's about exploring multiple facets of love and the complexity of commitment. In the parlance of 2023, we would say that is your message. How did that come into focus for you?

Tanya: That's the clarity that's happening in our relationship. We check in with each other all the time. I believe that what you hear with the record is a deeper understanding of who we are becoming to each other. With every song, it makes you think. It makes you want to become something better. And Michael's done that for me, and I've done that for him.

You're known for your full-force vocal attack. But there's a track on this album, "The Best That I Have," that features what may well be your softest, most sensual and controlled performance to date. It's like you're anticipating the pleasure of a rendezvous, with this melancholy awareness that it could be fleeting. Where did that come from?

Michael: I wrote that song, and that's not how I wrote it. It had, like, this Golden Girls [theme song] thing, or Three's Company. It was bouncy and fun and happy. And one of our agents was like, "Yeah, man, that's what you need. You need something real corny and cheesy like that." And I was like, "Well, I'm a little offended, but okay." I had a whole music video concept in my head. I was going to have on an apron and I was going to be grilling barbecue. And then I was gonna go, "Oh, hi" — little cheesy smile, like a sitcom opening. And Tanya and Dave [worked with the song], and I came back and it was dark, sexy and groovy. And I'm like, "What the heck is this like?"

I've never had trouble recording, because all the songs are in my range because I write them. They snuck me on this one in a real way, because I'm actually singing higher than Tanya in this song. I fought this tooth and nail. I thought Dave Cobb was out of his mind. We got into a big argument about this. I had to literally take a moment because there was fear there. I felt exposed. I felt like, "I can't do that. I don't want to do it." And I remember she grabbed my hand and she said in the sweetest, calmest way, "Baby you can, and you will. Are you ready? Take one. Let's go." And she was right. They were right. And I was wrong.

There's room for us all at a table. And when that table gets too crowded, add another freakin' table, add more chairs. That's what we're about.

A number of artists have drifted from the country mainstream toward rootsier approaches in the Americana scene. But it's a whole lot less common for artists to reposition themselves the way you have, signing to a major country label. What do you feel like that offers you at this point?

Tanya: What I love about the team that we have, our management team and Universal Nashville, is they see us from what we've done with Americana and gospel and all the things that encompass The War and Treaty, and they don't want to change it. They want to maybe fine-tune it. It's the genre [where we're] able to take our blues roots, our gospel roots, our Americana roots, with the storytelling, with us being an American family, Michael serving in the military and me being his wife and just having a family. All of that encompasses what it means to be a country music artist. That's what it's been able to do for us — to allow our story to be heard by a broader audience that can really understand.

When you entered the Americana spotlight, the number of artists of color having success in that scene was still very small. Since then, a number of others have been working to carve out space for themselves and build coalitions, and in various ways, making advocacy central to how they speak and move. How has that motivated you to clarify what you're about?

Michael: I feel so honored and so privileged to be alive and to be able to partner with all these artists and say, "You do it your way. You keep talking that way. That's how you get your message across. And we love you for it. And then over here, for all those you can't reach, we're going to try to reach in this way." And there's room for it all, because there are people who aren't going to hear it from Michael and Tanya that way. That is the mission of the War and Treaty: inclusion. There's room for us all at a table. And when that table gets too crowded, add another freakin' table, add more chairs. That's what we're about.

There's a War and Treaty biopic in the works. What have you learned from telling your story different ways over time and emphasizing different parts of it?

Tanya: All of us have to get up every morning and do life. That's the thing that connects us. We're resilient at the core of all of who we are, and that's what we've been able to use, is the resilience. There may be someone listening that's experienced homelessness, that's experienced bad relationships. We have been there too, and we never stopped. We just kept going. And I think that's what people see and what people can relate to with the music.

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Jewly Hight
[Copyright 2024 NPR]