The War and Treaty Are ‘Proud to Be a Part of’ Country Music’s Changing Narrative

The War and Treaty will make you believe.

Whether playing to industry insiders at Clive Davis’ exclusive Grammy Awards preparty, attendees at the Country Music Association Awards or Newport Jazz festivalgoers, precedent suggests just about everyone in any given audience will be on their feet by the time the husband-and-wife act finish one of their explosive, emotive, genre-bending and deeply spiritual sets.

“The fans will walk up to us afterward and say, ‘I don’t know what I just experienced, but something happened to me while I was listening to you,’ ” says Tanya Trotter, the duo’s better half. Universal Music Group Nashville (UMGN) CEO Cindy Mabe became one of those fans the first time she saw The War and Treaty, in 2022. “I was filming them and crying all at the same time,” she remembers. “I went home just talking about this band.” That same day, Mabe signed the act to its first major-label deal. Since then, this year’s Country Power Players Groundbreaker has continued broadening the genre with riveting and endless exuberance — even if country radio has yet to catch on.


Both Michael, 42, and Tanya, 50, started singing in church before they hit double digits; Michael has a video of himself singing “If Anybody Asks You Who I Am” standing on the congregation’s organ bench at just 3 years old. Those early experiences translated into a lifelong love of music-making and performing for both, though their path to The War and Treaty was far from linear. Tanya (née Blount) had a modest solo career in the 1990s following a cameo in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit singing alongside Lauryn Hill, including one track that cracked the Billboard Hot 100 in 1994; Cleveland native Michael dabbled in rapping, influenced by the success of local heroes Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, before eventually enlisting in the Army in 2003. While serving two tours in Iraq, he composed songs for his fallen comrades, even winning a “Military Idol” contest.

The couple met shortly after Michael had returned stateside — fittingly, at an arts festival where he was trying to launch a solo career. Tanya had long since stepped away from music and was working as a worship leader; the couple married and had a son, Legend (yes, named for John), in 2011. They didn’t realize the potency of their combined voices until several years later, though, while recording a demo of a song Michael had written for Tanya’s brother. A friend heard it and practically demanded they keep making music together.

Tonya and Michael Trotter photographed on April 15, 2024 at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
Tonya and Michael Trotter photographed on April 15, 2024 at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

That off-the-cuff duet in 2014 opened their eyes to a world of musical possibilities, but their path forward wasn’t easy or clear-cut. Michael still struggles with PTSD — at times so severely that he has said he contemplated suicide — and the couple also faced homelessness. Musically, they first found a home in Americana: In 2018, Thirty Tigers distributed their second album, Healing Tide, which featured a collaboration with Emmylou Harris, and they have won three Americana Music Awards. As the duo’s star kept rising, major country labels came calling, leading to the pair’s UMGN signing and subsequent major-label debut, 2023’s Lover’s Game, produced by Dave Cobb.

This past year, The War and Treaty were one of two country acts nominated in the Grammys’ best new artist category; the other was Jelly Roll, whom the Trotters consider a peer in making the genre more inclusive. “The space we occupied was really important,” Michael says. “The two artists representing the genre were not representative of that genre at all, if we’re being completely transparent. You got Jelly Roll, a tatted-face rapper who can sing a little bit, and Mike and Tanya, these Black, overweight, gospel-trained singers. Country music is actively trying to attack the narrative it has created, and I’m proud to be part of that change.”

Though they are self-described outliers on the still-too-­homogeneous Music Row, the Trotters say their Nashville peers have strongly supported them. It started with Dierks Bentley — who invited them to join him onstage for their first country awards show performance in 2021 and included them on a live album shortly thereafter — and continued with Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert and Chris Stapleton, for whom the duo will open three dates in May. Zach Bryan asked the Trotters to sing with him on his self-titled album after hearing them at the 2023 Academy of Country Music Awards, converted just like all the rest. The resulting song, “Hey Driver,” reached No. 14 on the Hot 100 — The War and Treaty’s highest chart entry to date — and the act will open Bryan’s three-night Los Angeles arena run in June, inevitably earning even more new fans.

Michael and Tanya are relentlessly positive, but they won’t ignore the obvious. “How about Mickey Guyton?” Michael says. “It all begins with her saying, ‘This is what country music looks like, too.’ ” With Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter shining a new spotlight on country music’s long history of racial exclusion, the duo readily acknowledges the work that remains to correct that past. (Beyoncé reached out to the Trotters after Cowboy Carter’s release but did not seek to collaborate with them.) “Have we experienced it?” Tanya asks. “Of course we have. Do we see it in the crowds? Of course we do.”

But they insist on pushing forward. “We’ve been sort of a healing balm, and I won’t allow anyone to take that away from Tanya and I,” Michael says. “We’ve been taken out on the road not to check a box, but literally because we’ve impacted some of the most powerful artists in our genre today.”

“My purpose is to really broaden what country music is and has always been,” UMGN’s Mabe says. “Finding them was like finding a needle in a haystack. They are an evolution of a format… Absolutely, we will eventually end up [bringing them to] country radio.”

That impact has been made because of the way Michael and Tanya translate their gospel bona fides into potent, generous and agnostic performances. “When you think of a gospel sound, you’re thinking of that sense of urgency — regardless of what my message is,” Michael says. “That sense that I need you to understand what I’m saying, that’s what we’re after. When somebody taps into that good truth, it just comes out with that roar and that fire.” There’s no scorched earth in the Trotters’ wake, though, just the one thing they’re interested in evangelizing: love.

This story will appear in the May 11, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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