Mike Zito’s emergence as a force in the blues world is confirmation of how hard work, talent and drive can compensate for a rough beginning in life. The phrase ‘singing the blues’ is often used as a metaphor for crying and complaining about troubles in one’s life. But Mike Zito has made a life for himself by singing the blues – without “singing the blues.” In other words, he makes a living rising above his hardships in life, not wallowing in them.
Zito’s background as a child growing up in St. Louis Missouri was less than ideal in many ways. The exposure to drug and alcohol abuse created demons he would regret later in life. But there was also the difficulty he had finding his way as a musician.
Although he loved music as a child, he didn’t come from an especially musical family. So that meant he had to forge a path of his own. And from a very early age, he did just that. “I started singing when I was really young—about five, I guess. I got a guitar when I was eight. No one in my family knew how to play music, so I had no clue what I was doing. I didn’t have lessons, or anything. I met some kids in high school who taught me how to tune it and how to play chords and stuff. And I kind of took off from there. I went to a music shop out of high school and worked there for about ten years. That’s where I really learned how to get the most out of it.”
The Tough Road
But Mike Zito’s path to success was a difficult one. A young father and husband, he played in a number of bands in his twenties. He says, “I just wanted to play guitar: country, blues, rock and roll, it didn’t matter. But at heart Zito was, and is, a blues man. And when his friendship with Devon Allman (son of blues-rock legend Greg Allman) led to a bigger project, the result was a deeply memorable blues band called the Royal Southern Brotherhood.
Band of (Southern) Brothers
Royal Southern Brotherhood is a supergroup whose members have shifted over the years, but the band has chiefly revolved around Allman, Zito, Cyril Neville and Yonrico Scott. But when it was time to drift away from the Brothers, this meant going back to the basics for Zito. He explains: “I said I wanted to go back to my guitar and do something fun. Something that’s all about me,” he laughs. “I will be 46 years old the day after the record comes out, and I think everyone goes through their phases. I feel like I’m going to be a teenager again.”
War No More
Make Blues Not War is Zito’s thirteenth album. And it sounds very much like the veteran guitar man is having the time of his life, rocking and reeling through a breathtakingly diverse range of styles and subgenres. The album is lively and fresh, surprising the listener at every turn while somehow delivering exactly what they need.
Like Father Like Son
Make Blues Not War is Mike Zito’s first album since breaking away from The Royal Southern Brotherhood. Although he wasn’t exactly hamstrung while rocking with the Brotherhood, his thirteenth album does sound quite liberating. The vocals howl with delight and the guitar slashes like a razor. This is no album for the blues beginner. Enter this album at your own risk.
The title track has an understand sense of joy and “Highway Mama” crackles with Zeppelin-like cool. But the song that cuts the deepest is “Road Dog,” doubtlessly a tune based on Zito’s own life as an itinerant blues man. Its sense of despair tinged with an unshakable individuality makes the album worth the price.
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The song on Make Blues Not War that likely resonates most with Zito is “Chip Off The Old Block,” which features a guest appearance by Zack Zito, the blues man’s 21-year-old son. The proud father insists he never pushed the instrument on his son, but adds, “He’s a lot like me: he loves playing guitar.”
When asked about what kind of advice he’s supplied for his son, Mike Zito’s answer harkens back to an earlier darker period in his life. “I don’t mean it to sound as corny as maybe it sounds, but I think the biggest mistakes I made was drinking too much and doing drugs. I had a lot of these chances that I was very fortunate to get again. I had them earlier on when I was in my 20s, and the mistakes I made was too much of the partying. Of course, he has a much better opportunity than I did, because I can help him kind of get started or get into whatever the business is.”