For The War and Treaty’s Michael Trotter, Jr., a 30-minute conversation about anything barely plunges into the depths of his intensely thoughtful mind and soulful being. However, discussing how he used singing and songwriting to — at various times — ground himself, restore his sanity, and heal his essence — during the COVID-19 pandemic yields surprising and incredible moments.
When he stumbles upon describing the time his son serendipitously poured a glass of water on his head, it’s the water — above all else — that starts the process of cleansing his soul about artistically surviving quarantine. An emotional river of good feeling emerges that helps us all positively flow through these unprecedented times.
Trotter’s personal process for solving pandemic stress foremost involved checking in on the mental health and wellbeing of his fellow artists like Jimmie Allen and Dierks Bentley, the latter eventually recently yielding The War and Treaty’s duet with Bentley for a cover of U2’s “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” at the 2021 Academy of Country Music Awards. As well, he fondly recalls working in songwriting rooms with artists like Tenille Townes. Plus, when the Black Lives Matter Movement dovetailed with the pessimism of being a musician unable to play live shows, he recalled a touching moment with now-deceased civil rights icon John Lewis, helping him soldier through the pandemic relatively unscathed.
But again, it all starts with water.
“The way I was sitting one day, my nine-year-old son Legend was sitting over the top of my head, and he accidentally poured a glass of water on it,” says the Americana Music Association and Folk Alliance Award-winning performer. “As he tried to wipe the water from my scalp, he actually started to massage it into my head, and that calmed me down,” Trotter continues. Before the pandemic — which he says he expected, like many did, to last “a few months” — Michael and Tanya Trotter were putting the finishing touches on their eventually September 2020-released third studio album Hearts Town.
If anything, 2020 was to be the duo’s breakout year, so a delay on out-sized expectations was a tough pill to swallow. The tandem is uniquely articulated as a pair for success in country and country-aligned music. Tanya Blount Trotter’s voice is alongside Lauryn Hill’s in the pop icon’s breakout performance of “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” from 1993 film Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. Moreover, as a Bad Boy Records signed artist during the label’s heyday, she provided heavenly soulful underpinnings for tracks by the likes of the Notorious B.I.G, Boyz II Men, Brandy, and more. Michael Trotter, Jr. served in the Army, learned to play the piano in Saddam Hussein’s bomb-ransacked mansion, and was once tasked by the Armed Forces to write and perform songs for fallen soldiers. Thus, their music — like the 2018 single “Healing Tide” — is infused with a style and sound that is ethereal yet grounded in spiritualized substance.
Tenille Townes is a 27-year-old, western Canadian-born country artist with two Canadian number-one singles looking for greater American pop-country success. Trotter recalls their songwriting session, thusly:
“When Tenille came to work with us, she was completely depleted, feeling lost and unsure of what to do. When I locked eyes with her, and I saw what I felt was some desperation in her eyes, we wrote the lyric, ’there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, you and I are gonna find our way.’ When she smiled, I knew that moment reassured her. But it even inspired me to realize that as artists, people, whatever, we were going to emerge from this moment, together.”
As far as what inspired that moment, Michael Trotter has an astounding recollection: “The only other time that I’ve ever felt like [I did when I connected with Tenille Townes], was when I was present with John Lewis the last time he crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge (in March 2019).”
Famously, on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, Selma, Alabama’s police force attacked Civil Rights Movement demonstrators – Lewis included — with horses, billy clubs, and tear gas as they were attempting to march to the Alabama state capitol to advocate for voting rights for Black Alabamians.
“[Lewis] asked Tanya and me to join him. It was such a powerful ask, and when all of us who held hands with him began crossing the bridge, I felt inspired, again, by the positivity that gave The War and Treaty our musical calling.”
To that end, Trotter and his wife’s recent performance with Dierks Bentley and roots band Larkin Poe at the 2021 ACM Awards ultimately serves as much as a mainstream “breakout” moment as it did a moment where the water-like flow of positivity turned into a river of untapped, “healing” possibilities yielded by the pandemic:
“I was just checking in with my friends like Dierks as people, not as musicians. So for him to reach out to perform at the ACM Awards, that really meant that we’d connected,” Trotter says. Ultimately, their performance of U2’s “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” is elevated. Bono penned the 1984 track to sketch a through-line between America’s pride in its national resolve and the pride of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., two of the nation’s most famously marginalized civil rights leaders. However, to hear Bentley and the Trotters voice the lyrics — as a life and history-altering pandemic ends, no less — signifies that pride, like water, cleanses doubt and stress from all of our souls.