The War and Treaty: How the Best New Artist Grammy Nominees Came to Be ‘Friends’ With the Emmys, Too, and Win Over Superfan Zach Bryan

The husband-and-wife duo the War and Treaty will have a big presence during Grammy week, parlaying their nomination for best new artist into multiple performances on- and off-screen throughout the days leading up to and including the telecast. But the Grammys were destined not to be the only awards show this season that would afford them a high profile. On Monday night’s Emmys, the couple joined Charlie Puth for a properly emotional In Memoriam segment that segued from the country-soul duo offering harmonies on Puth’s elegiac “See You Again” to taking more of the lead on a balladic version of the “Friends” theme,” “I’ll Be There,” that took it from Rembrandts territory to the land of Ashford and Simpson.

And so did a significant portion of the viewing audience get in on what has sometimes seemed like the entertainment industry’s worst-kept secret: that the War and Treaty are right up there with the biggest crowd-pleasers in the business. On a big night for other UTA-affiliated clients (like “Succession” and “The Bear”), the War and Treaty might belong in that winners’ circle, too, effectively. The chemistry between Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Trotter has won over a few hundred thousand people at a time, or sometimes just a few hundred a night — a very, very gradual process that has allowed them to be nominated for best new artist after already having four LPs and two EPs out, and already being a well-established act to a fandom that feels much bigger than a cult, if still a little shy of household name status.

More from Variety

They just got another leg up on possible approaching ubiquity by being featured on one of the biggest albums of the last six months, Zach Bryan’s self-titled, chart-topping album. (They’ll be joining Bryan at some arena and even stadium shows this summer, after some road dates in similar-size venues with Chris Stapleton.) In the meantime, newcomers may wonder: How did a duo with such clear roots in classic R&B end up in country, or at least signed to country’s biggest label group? We broached that and other questions with the Trotters just prior to their Emmys appearance (the nature of which was being held back as a surprise). Not to trivialize the Charlie Puth song, but suffice it to say that “see you again” is a promise they can make to just about everyone in America.

Describe what you’ll be doing on Emmy night?

Michael Trotter Jr.: We’re performing with Charlie Puth, doing the “Friends” tribute to Matthew Perry. We’re singing Charlie’s song, “See You Again,” and we are doing the medley into the “Friends” theme song. So this should be a very collaborative and emotional piece. We were in L.A. and performed during the Save the Music where they were honoring the likes of Cindy Mabe [chairman-CEO of the duo’s label, Universal Music Group Nashville], along withg LL Cool J, Adam Blackstone and Becky G. And the producer (of the Emmys), Jesse Collins, was present and he fell in love with us and was like, “Oh, we gotta work together.”

Is the Matthew Perry part meaningful to you? Did you watch “Friends” and were you big fans?

Tanya Trotter: [Points repeatedly toward Michael, as the addict.] I was reading books…

Michael: I was a “Friends” fanatic, yes!

What is coming up immediately for you after the Emmys?

Michael: On Feb. 2nd, we’ve got our first single to our new album coming out, called “Mr. Fun.” And I feel like it’s our true, authentic self. We’ve got so many great songs to record, and we’re so amped up for people to hear this new music.

Tanya: Then we are hitting the studio on Sunday to record the other 18 songs. We’re gonna do it at Fame (Recording Studios) in Muscle Shoals, so that’s gonna be pretty fun.

You’ve had some name producers, like Dave Cobb on your most recent album, “Lover’s Game,” which came out just 10 months ago or so. Who’s producing this new album?

Tanya: [Points to Michael.] He produced “Hearts Town” [their third album, released through Rounder in 2020], or co-produced it with our buddy Max Brown, but this time it’s all him. We all stepped out of the way to let the genius do what he does. Boom!… I’m gonna try to convince him to record 35 songs, so we already have another record ready to go. We have enough songs for six albums.

Let’s start off and just talk about the Grammys. Fortunately, the Grammys don’t have totally strict rules about being a new artist. So even though you two have been together for 10 years as a duo, and have four albums and two EPs out, you were eligible for the new artist Grammy, as long as you hadn’t been nominated before. So how does it feel to be new after 10 years together?

Tanya: We have nine lives. I love it! You’re always being introduced to new people, and I think that’s the beauty of music. It’s a living organism… It’s funny to see the fans online. They’re like “New? We’ve been following ’em for nine years.”

Will you be performing that week?

Tanya: We are performing and we want to be involved in everything. We want the whole Grammy experience. We’ve been there before. We sang in 2020 for Ken Ehrlich’s final production, so we were there, but this time around we want to just experience it more and get to meet everybody that we can. We’re performing with Josh Groban at the Clive Davis party, so we’re very excited about that too. And we’re doing the Americana tribute at the Troubadour as well.

The Clive party and Americana event are the same night, on Grammy eve. So you will bounce between them?

Tanya: Mm-Hmm. We’re gonna be moving like rappers that night. Club-hopping!

You signed with a country label, UMG Nashville, for your fourth and now fifth albums. Prior to that you’d been identified largely as Americana and got an award from the Americana Music Association for best duo/group. Clearly, genre classifications are not going to limit what you guys do, but they could help or hurt. Being willing to take on the country label could introduce some different flavors to that genre. Was it tough to kind of make that decision that you were good with being called a country duo, even though you have so many flavors that factor into what you do?

Tanya: You know, it was very easy, because Cindy Mabe, who signed us, did not want us to label ourselves. Her thing was, “Y’all do Americana music, and I want to see how we can get an Americana group like you to fill out an arena, or a stadium. I don’t want you to change. I want you to do what you do, and that is make people feel what they feel when they watch you perform.” And I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the two artists that are representing country music in the best new artist category are the War and Treaty and Jelly Roll, because I think the world is changing. And I think that when you represent who you are, regardless of what genre that you do, people see it and they can feel the authenticity. And that’s what we bring to country music. Our contribution to country music is to bring our gospel sound; is to bring our grit; is to bring the rawness that we have always done. It just happens to resonate with the country music fans right now, and we are very honored and blessed for that.

To talk about highlights from last year, you did a lot of shows opening for Chris Stapleton. It seems like a good match — anybody who loves his voice, whether they know you or not, is going to love your voices.

Michael: To be really honest and transparent, I think that when people first hear Chris Stapleton, it’s so unexpected — but it’s kind of expected when you look like us. … We’re taught to identify differently, right?

There’s a festival called Red Ants [Pants Music Festival, in Montana], and I will say this much. There are people that are so white out there, they make you [a white interviewer] look Black. Their lifestyle is like they’ve never heard soul a day in their life. They are just good, hardworking, farming, redneck people who want to have a good time. But when you step on that stage, and we’re giving them what we have and seeing their reactions… I mean, these people were crying, and their children wanted to come talk to us and get autographs, from 5 all the way up to 17, saying, “Thank you for coming to see us. Thank you for sharing what you have.” We have video footage of that, and that shocks me. It’s that audience that makes you go, “Wow.” Because again, we’re taught to identify differently, right?

When you look at a Chris Stapleton, who looks like he just walks straight out of the mountains with this long, big beard and this cowboy hat on, you think he’s gonna do something else, and here he is, dripping and oozing with soul. Really, he’s not even a country artist; really, he is a blues artist, posing. And we’ve heard these derogatory terms like blue-eyed soul, so we’ve got a lot of fucked-up shit that we’ve gotta sift through before we can get to what the truth is. And the truth is, it’s all just music.

The joy of touring with Chris Stapleton is you get to learn from Chris Stapleton. It’s got nothing to do with his voice. It’s got to do with him as a person and who he really is. He just commands your attention with his quietness. That’s deep.

Do you see yourselves as role models in terms of how you represent yourselves as a loving couple on stage?

Michael: That’s an honor. I couldn’t imagine me doing this without Tanya, period. You know, we take our role models from history. We look at Ashford and Simpson; we could start there. Beautiful couple, amazing band; gave us some great songs through the years. We go to Ike and Tina, absent the troubled, troubled history that we’ve learned throughout the years; we look at Ike and Tina musically, and it’s like, Jesus Christ, it’s amazing. So we’ve got some big shoes to fill. But when you look at Tanya and Michael, we also travel over to Johnny Cash and June Carter. We look at many different stories (of duos).

And then we take the history of performers from Little Richard to Michael Jackson, Patti LaBelle, Tina Turner and Teddy Pendergrass — you name it — and we try to honor them, too. with our stage presence. At the end of the day, we use all of those influences, but then we look at our audience, and they’re the number one reason we do what we do.

Because you never know who’s out there. Tanya and I look at it like this: Somebody’s in that audience, and this is their last concert. We had a young lady come see us in Alabama at the Saturn, and she had her friends with her and she had a sign and she was just dancing and partying and having a good time. She was cheering the loudest. She had been telling us for weeks that she’s looking forward to this concert. And she goes home that night and dies. We were the last thing she saw. We were the last thing she heard. And her friends told us how impactful it was for her to see us. That’s the why, right there. You don’t know who’s in that audience, and what’s going to happen, but at least we can give them all of what we got.

Zach Bryan has obviously taken a big liking to you. The collaboration that he did with you on his latest album, “Hey Driver,” was on Variety’s list of the best songs of 2023. And at the beginning of the track, which sounds like it was cut live, he says, “This is your song, Mike.” How did that collaboration develop, and what’s happening as we join that track in progress?

Michael: That came about because we were at the ACMs together. At the end of the night, we were going over to try to meet Kane Brown, and Zach and another artist named Nate Smith kind of intercepted us. Zach was like, “What the hell was that? What happened to me when y’all are performing?” He did not want to be there. He did not enjoy the ACMs. And then we came on a stage and it ignited him. He was like, “We’ve gotta do a song together. You guys gotta be on my album.”

And that week he was sending the song, and he was like, “Can you voice-memo this back? Because I just want to hear how it sounds.” And then the little bastard put it up on his goddamn damn socials. And I was like, “Dude, wait. Noooo!” We hadn’t even talked to our label yet. He’s like, “Oh, you’re fine.” We’re like, yeah, motherfucker! [Laughs.] So it was one of those weird moments, but that’s just how he is, that he posted that. We became friends after that, and, and we went to Philadelphia to record that song. And Tanya snitched on me! I wasn’t supposed to play the keys on that.

Tanya: Michael was nowhere around, and Zach and I were in the room. There was a piano there, and Zach was on the ground with his guitar and he was like, “I don’t know, I’m hearing different things. I’m kind of hearing like a piano.” And he looked at me and he says, “Does Michael play?” I said, “Does he play?… But I don’t know what you’re gonna have to do in order to get him to play on this record. This is gonna have to be your idea, because if I tell him to play on the record, he’s not gonna do it.” So Michael comes in and Zach is like, “Man, I’m working out these chords, and let’s see what we can come up with together.” So they started playing it, and Michael was kind of apprehensive. He didn’t really want to do it, but we ended up doing it. And so while we’re recording, Zach’s on the other side of the booth and we’re inside, and he’s like, “Come on Michael, come on Michael. Give it to me. This is your song.”

Michael: So that’s what you hear. He’s going, “All right, this is your song, Mike.” Then you hear my stupid-ass, Ned Flanders from “The Simpsons” laugh. I’m like, “Hey, all right. I don’t even know what to do,” I’m just so caught off guard. But it was such a fun experience, and we’re very grateful for him shining his light on us. And yeah, it changed the game for us.

Did you and Zach ever talk about your respective time in the military and actually both getting started in music during your time serving? Because it’s interesting that there are some parallels there, and that’s not a common story. Have you bonded over that?

Michael: No, actually. And I think I’m now a little bit more vocal about that time period than probably Zach is. Because we were writing under two different circumstances. You know, I was in the war, writing, so there’s a little bit of a difference. I was writing about literally the fallen, and not really about experiences at home. I was really more writing about the fact that we were losing Americans out there laying their lives on the line. So we haven’t had that chance to connect. I reckon we might at some point, though.

It sounds like you had to go through a transition of meeting your wife and realizing that you could write love songs too, but that was not your original impulse, with it starting as an expression of what was happening in wartime in Iraq. So you had to relate to music differently than you did at first.

Michael: Yeah, totally. I mean, I was focused, hell-bent, on writing about what I was going through out there. But Tanya offered a new opportunity for me, and then I took it. And we just got finished with our first USO tour, over in Seoul, Korea and Guam. Reconnecting to my mothership as to why I do what I do just felt so damn good.

It came out a while ago that there might be War and Treaty biopic. Is there a script happening?

Michael: Script is done, script is written. It’s happening, and it’s about that moment. The tag is “The war brought him music. Music brought him love.” And it’s an American love story about Black love — a Black couple who falls in love and discovers that there’s a lot of healing that has to take place. And this Black woman, much like Black women in history, put her life on pause, examined her life and then changed her life. Her aspirations became seeing me healed. And that’s the story.

Are you shopping the screenplay around?

Michael: We’re having a couple of conversations. John Legend is involved, with Get Lifted films. Gary Gilbert and Gilbert Films are involved. They partnered before to do “La La Land.” The writers are Craig Borten, who wrote “Dallas Buyers’ Club,” and Will McCormack… The director at at the moment is Numa Perrier; Oprah listed her as the next big director. So it’s been amazing, this journey, and we’re anxious to see it unfold even further this year.

This isn’t a thing where you would play yourselves, is it? Because inevitably it’s hard to imagine wanting to hear anybody else sing your songs.

Michael: I know, right? We did think about it. But no, we’ve got some awesome names in the fire, so we’ll see what happens there.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.