Seriously, it might not be since the heyday of Ike and Tina Turner that we’ve heard a married couple belt out soulful R&B like War and Treaty, the husband and wife team of Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount-Trotter. This debut, Healing Tide, marks their first full-length album, following last year’s highly acclaimed EP and a growing reputation as concert slayers.
The album was produced by Buddy Miller at his home studio in Nashville this past March. All songs were written solely by Trotter and feature the powerhouse vocals of Tanya as well Michael who also plays keyboards. Miller adds guitars and banjo with Brady Blade on drums, Adam Chaffins (bass), Jim Hoke (organ, saxophone, autoharp, harmonica), Russ Pahl (pedal steel, banjo), Sam Bush (fiddle), Bill Huber (trombone), Matt Slocum (cello) and Emmylou Harris guesting on “Here Is Where the Loving Is At.” Most of those names ring like Americana players but make no mistake, this is an emotive R7B/soul record that will turn heads. It’s a glorious statement.
Their backstory is certainly worth sharing. Michael is a wounded warrior who found joy in music while serving in Iraq. This, from a recent NPR interview with Michael is fascinating – “My battalion identified me – out of 980-plus soldiers, they identified me as the weak link due to my visible fear of being in Iraq and being at war. But they knew some personal information. They knew that I loved music, and one of the captains decided to take me downstairs in the palace, where we were staying, and showed me that there was a piano there. And I didn’t know how to play, but I could hear harmonies, and I would go over to that piano throughout the course of being in Iraq, and I would try to learn how to play. But it wasn’t until that captain got killed where that emotional connection that I needed to connect with that instrument unlocked. And I wrote my first song about that whole situation, and I performed it at his memorial in Iraq. And my colonel, Peter L. Jones, and my general at the time – they identified something miraculous that took place. The soldiers, instead of becoming overwhelmed with grief, really became overwhelmed with joy and honor of being able to say, I served next to that fallen soldier. And they then took me and said that would be my job for 2004 all throughout 2007, and I’d sing it at the memorials throughout Iraq.”
Tanya is a lifelong artist and immensely gifted singer. The two met at a festival, became soulmates, eventually marrying and forming the musical collaboration that takes the name War and Treaty. They hail from Albion, MI and released their EP, Down to the River last July. Upon the strength of that recording and an incendiary performance at last year’s Americana Music Festival & Conference, ironically subbing for an ill Buddy Miller, they were destined to not only make this album but to record it in Nashville.
The opener, free of instrumentation, immediately connects the listener to power of the couple’s individual and collective voices on the a carpella “Love like There’s No Tomorrow.” Hoke’s pulsating organ, Miller’s rhythmic guitar and Blade’s backbeat announce the fiery title track, as the couple trade lines, joining at the chorus. The tempo eases off a bit for the shuffling “Are You Ready to Love Me?” but the power of vocals is just short of overpowering (in a good way) again. Michael’ piano leads into his throaty impassioned vocal on the ballad “Hearts” before Tanya joins him in duet. “Jeep Cherokee Laredo” is anything but delicate as Buddy Miller fuels it with his guitar.
The second half of the album begins in duet with the moderately paced “One and the Same,” that takes on spiritual overtones with the invoking of Jesus and God. Then it’s as if Hoke’s organ brings us right into a church for the hymn-like “If It’s in Your Heart,” that builds into an exclamatory shout out for both singers. Again, there’s a need for tempering it down. Welcome Emmylou Harris who, with her gorgeous alto, leads us into “Here Is Where the Loving Is At,” against a bluegrass accompaniment. Brady Blade’s incessant beat and Miller’s slide guitar provide the foundation for the funky “All I Wanna Do” where the couple sings as if might be the last song they ever sing. They follow with the beautifully rendered “It’s Not Over Yet” before concluding, similarly to how they began the album, in soaring ballad duet, this time with spare musical support. Slocum’s cello fits wonderfully with Michael’s piano.
This is an amazingly uplifting R&B album dressed up in Americana clothing. It’s more than fair to say that War and Treaty exceeded the high expectations coming in. As one of this year’s best revelations, Healing Tide is flat out stunning.