They played with Emmylou Harris, toured with Al Green, shared stages with Brandi Carlile and Elvis Costello, became close to John Prine and were set to headline the prestigious blues tent at the Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans in the spring.
On March 12, as the pandemic was in its fledgling days, they played a huge event in New York. The gig ended with four of the people onstage infected with the coronavirus, including 43-year-old Blount.
Her lungs! That voice that sang alongside Patti LaBelle and Lauryn Hill, the one that gets critics to consistently call her “underrated,” was subdued as she strained to breathe.
“It was scary,” Blount said. “I didn’t have to be on a ventilator, but I was having trouble breathing.”
From March to June, they watched their concerts, events and appearances evaporate, all while Blount was in a feverish fight for her life.
They’re not despairing, though. These two have been knocked down before. Their whole story — why their lives were so bad and their music so good — is about getting back up.
The seeds of Trotter’s success story were planted 25 years ago, when the bus from Ohio pulled into that rough old bus station in D.C. and announced his arrival with a pneumatic exhale.
He was 13, and he and his mom landed in the nation’s capital because that’s the farthest her secret stash of dollar bills could get them when she finally made the break from his alcoholic, abusive father. The shelter that took them in — even though he was over the age limit — saved their lives.
Trotter, now 38, didn’t find the music that led him to Blount by taking lessons from an inspirational teacher or the band director at a school. That’s not the life of a kid who grew up in a D.C. shelter for battered women.
No, he found it in one of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad palaces in 2004, where the rubble and carnage of the early years of America’s war on terror took a toll on Trotter’s mind.
He was in the Army stationed in that palace, when his commanding officer told him about the darndest thing: “You won’t believe this, Trotter. Saddam Hussein’s piano is in the basement.”
Trotter checked it out, crawling over rubble and through soot to find it — and there it was, perfectly tuned and unharmed: a dictator’s piano. He put his fingers on the keys and something clicked.
So he played and played, figuring out how the black and white keys worked together, coming up with riffs and hooks, and he began adding words — some about the war and the people killed.
He had a tune that he wanted to share with that commanding officer, the one who directed him to the piano. The officer was headed out and told him he would listen to it when he got back. Because Trotter’s life is filled with cinematic moments, that officer never had a chance to return.
Trotter wrote and performed a moving piece about him for the officer’s memorial. The Army saw the value of the tribute, and the impact that performance had on the unit, so they made that his mission — learning about soldiers who were killed and performing musical obituaries.
When Trotter returned to D.C., to the wife and child he left behind when he went to war, he began playing and performing, mostly small gigs unfurling those painful tributes to killed service members — coffeehouse obituaries that were, unwittingly, the start of his public PTSD therapy. He and his wife divorced.
Then he met Tanya Blount at an event in Maryland. A talented musician who had a small part in “Sister Act 2” and big parts on studio albums, Blount, like Trotter, was a divorced parent and abuse survivor. Both said they had no intention of marrying.
They got married.
I met them in a high school gym in D.C. on Valentine’s Day five years ago, when they performed a private show for the women and children who were living at Trotter’s teenage home, the House of Ruth.
I talked to them about juggling their blended family of children from their past marriages plus Legend, the toddler son they had together, trying to fit performances in between all the family noise and activities. And I wished them well, not envying the uphill battle they were undertaking in a ruthless industry that probably cared little for sitter issues or parent-teacher conferences.
Two years later, they had another reckoning.
They were struggling — financially, musically, as parents — y’all know that feeling of overwhelm. Trotter also had those days in Baghdad inside his head. The PTSD was eating away at him and he was planning to kill himself. Blount got down in front of him and said “just give me five more minutes to love you,” and that was enough time for help to arrive.
That turned into “Five More Minutes,” a song on their second album that a Rolling Stone critic described as an “up-tempo roots-rocker with an opening horn riff that conjures early Seventies Hi Records gold.”
I caught up with them from their home in Nashville, hearing about the wild ride they’ve been on since we met at that gym in D.C.
There was the meteoric rise — playing with Harris and brought onstage at the Grand Ole Opry by Prine — asked to play the big festivals at Bonnaroo, Telluride and New Orleans.
And then it halted.
“We lost all our gigs. Just gone,” Blount said. “Legend, he’s 9 now, he’s been traveling on the road with us, home schooling. But what the pandemic has done is taught us to appreciate our home. We bought the house, our first house.”
Trotter interjected: “I’m standing here! I has a swimming pool, and thinking about leaving home in Cleveland all those years ago. We did it. We did it on our own.”
This cursed year has started to release its grasp on them. Blount’s lungs have healed. They released their second album, “Hearts Town,” and they sang on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” in September.
They picked “Five More Minutes,” a song that’s about them, but really about America — coming back and standing up again, especially when you’re down.
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