Ronnie Littlejohn is the host of Gumbo Kitchen on JAZZ.FM91.
On stage, army veteran Michael Trotter Jr. is fearless.
But in 2003, when Trotter was deployed to the war in Iraq, he was understandably terrified. At 19, he had become a father and enlisted in the military.
Trotter taught himself to play a piano that was previously owned by, of all people, Saddam Hussein. After almost two years in Iraq, he returned home and met Tanya Blount at a music festival. The two started working on songs together, got married and had a child. But Trotter was having trouble adjusting to civilian life; on one Fourth of July, he hid under his bed during the fireworks. He visited a veterans hospital and was diagnosed with PTSD.
His wife encouraged him to play some of the songs he had written while he was in Iraq. Most of The War and Treaty’s songs aren’t memorials, although in a way you could argue that they are. Trotter says that every night when he takes the stage, he’s reminded of all those with whom he served who can’t be there.
“On my back sits the spirit of those fallen boys and girls, and they’re cheering. I can feel it,” he says.
Trotter joined host Ronnie Littlejohn on the Gumbo Kitchen to tell us more about finding peace during his time in Iraq, how he returned to meet the love of his life, and how they made their new record Healing Tide that celebrates their love of music.
Scroll to the bottom if you’d like to listen to audio of the interview.
There’s a little bit of a story about one of your commanding officers, Captain Robert Scheetz. Can you tell us about the role he played in you taking up music when you were in the army?
He noticed that I was visibly the most afraid soldier in my unit in the war. He had studied my file and realized that I love music, and so what he wanted to do was show me that Saddam had a piano in the palace we had took over. He led me to that piano, and he told me on my off days to come down here and find home, find peace and solitude. And that’s what I would do. I’d go down there and I’d try to learn how to play Mary Had a Little Lamb. Once I’d learned how to play Lean on Me, I thought I was a natural Mozart. It wasn’t until that commander was killed that I realized that I needed something deeper. That gave me the emotional connection I needed to that emotional instrument.
That piano must have helped you keep your sanity while you’re in hell, I’d imagine.
Most definitely. You use that to remind you of home. But I had other things to keep me focused — a picture of my two beautiful daughters at the time. I would look at that picture all the time and hope that I’d get home safe to spend the rest of my life with them.
That piano that you taught yourself on had a pretty unbelievable previous owner.
Yeah, Suddam Hussein himself. He owned several pianos around Iraq. This palace that we seized happened to be his favourite, and I learned how to play on that.
It’s pretty unbelievable that you found a piano that was owned by Suddam Hussein — and we all know what he was about — and it brought you so much peace.
You know, I say it all the time, someone with such tyrannical behaviour was able to have moments of peace and solitude in his own life playing that instrument. Now here I am in the centre of hell being created, and I’m having a moment of sporadic peace, and I love it.
I understand your captain was killed by an IED, and you wrote a song for his memorial, which led you down the path of writing songs for your fallen friends and partners there.
It’s sort of like America’s story. I was pulled off the line to literally write songs and sing them for memorials after the commanders and the powers that be saw the healing powers of my singing, my playing, my music, and what it could do to boost the morale of the troops. So that’s what I would do for the remainder of my military career.
And after your first tour of duty, you go home and it just wasn’t right, and you volunteered to do a second tour.
I went home predominantly to see my new daughter. I thought it would be a good time to go home, refocus, reflect, meet the baby. But when I got home, after spending time with my daughters and trying to re-acclimate myself into civilian life, I realized that my job wasn’t over. It just didn’t feel right. I felt like I had to get back out there with my boys and finish the work that I had begun — and I did just that, to the amazement of my unit. I requested to return back to Iraq for a second time. This was a tour of duty that was in more danger. But we accomplished some great things, and I’m so happy to have been a part of that unit and to be part of the healing story of the war.
And eventually you met your now-wife, the lovely and incredible Tanya Blount. You say it was at a “love fest” that you met?
Love Festival in Laurel, Md. Tanya had put this festival together and asked me to come perform. She didn’t know me; she had people scouting talent. That’s where we first met, and that date is Aug. 28, 2010. She was an angel then, and she’s an angel today. We fell in love and that’s the story.
Where did the name The War and Treaty come from?
It came from an argument that my wife and I were having about changing the name for the seventh time. We were getting pretty heated. I emphatically wanted to change the name. She emphatically wanted to keep the name we had, and felt that it was unprofessional to keep changing the name. In the heat of the battle, she said, “OK, Michael, this is not a war. Let’s come to some sort of treaty here.” And I immediately said, “Wait a minute. I think that’s the name.”
In August of last year, you released the fantastic album Healing Tide, with producer Buddy Miller. What was it like working with him?
A dream come true. It’s beyond music working with Buddy Miller. It’s life-changing. And then to be able to be graced with the presence of Julie just put icing on the cake. We got a chance to know the Millers and understand what they’re about, and it’s bigger than music. It goes beyond the realm of music and into the realm of spirituality and humanity.
What I love most about your music apart from the performance is that it’s kind of unpredictable. You have some stuff on there that’s beautiful country music, as well.
That was the intention, to make sure we don’t pigeonhole ourselves. We are music, and music is us, and music is everything. You get a little bit of jazz, a little bit of blues, a little bit of country, a little bit of gospel. And hopefully all will have a good time listening to it.