Guitar, bass, drums and the blues. It’s back to basics for Mike Zito. He’s returned to the riff-fueled blues-rock that inspired him to make music in the first place.
It’s been nearly a decade since Zito previously waved his guitar hero flag. His departure in late 2014 from Royal Southern Brotherhood—the supergroup that originally featured Zito, Cyril Neville, Devon Allman, Yonrico Scott and Charlie Wooton—helped him reclaim his six-string prowess. So did moving away from the singer-songwriter focus he’d pursued through most of the past decade.
And there’s another reason why Zito’s thirteenth album, Make Blues Not War, is a blues-rocking affair: Tom Hambridge, the Grammy-winning Nashville producer whose other studio clients include Buddy Guy, Delbert McClinton, Susan Tedeschi and Kenny Neal.
“I was ready to start over, to turn this over to somebody else,” the usually self-produced Zito said. “For the first time in a long time, I wrote riffs. I told Tom what I wanted to do. He understood.”
With Hambridge at the helm, Zito recorded Make Blues Not War at the Switchyard Recording Studio in Nashville. Hambridge and Zito co-wrote many of the album’s songs, but the producer’s greatest contribution was helping Zito be himself again.
“Tom is into old blues and classic rock,” Zito said. “We grew up on the same stuff. I knew all along, when I decided to a down-and-dirty blues-rock record, he’s the guy.”
With Make Blues Not War, the Texas–based Zito reconnected with the guitar greats who inspired him when he was a young musician in St. Louis: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robin Trower, Rory Gallagher and, most of all, Johnny Winter.
“All of those people, they are the reason I play guitar,” Zito said. “And I have everything Johnny Winter ever did. The first time I heard him on the radio, when I was a teenager, it blew my mind. Johnny’s guitar playing was so clean and so fast and so bluesy. I was hooked.”
Zito and Winter became friends about six years before the Texas guitar maestro’s death in 2014. Sharing the same booking agency, they toured together.
“Johnny invited me on stage with him,” Zito said. “He encouraged me. He liked my guitar playing. He liked me.”
Winter also questioned Zito’s decision to join Royal Southern Brotherhood in 2011.
“Johnny said, ‘Why are you joining these bands?’ He put his hand on my arm and he said, ‘Mike, you’re a good blues player. We need more blues records.’ I remember thinking, ‘Man, what just happened?’ Johnny Winter told me that! I don’t forget it.”
But Winter’s advice didn’t stop Zito from becoming a charter member of Royal Southern Brotherhood. The group formed on a high note. “Pearl River,” a song co-written by Zito and Cyril Neville, won blues song of the year at the 2010 Blues Music Awards in Memphis.
“Cyril and I really hit it off,” Zito recalled. “I thought Cyril and I were starting a blues band. And then here comes my old friend, Devon Allman. One by one, things fell in place and Royal Southern Brotherhood became its own thing.”
The members of Royal Southern Brotherhood hadn’t expected the band to be a fulltime gig. But it quickly exceeded expectations.
“It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Zito said. “And it’s the biggest thing I’ve ever seen, in a long time, in this blues-Americana genre. The band got so popular so fast. It took over. Nobody could do anything else.”
During his three years in Royal Southern Brotherhood, Zito seldom saw his wife and five children. And as much he loved the challenging songs the Brotherhood performed, it wasn’t his music. Zito, Allman and Wooton eventually left the band, but the Brotherhood continues with a revised membership featuring original members Neville and Scott.
“I was ready to continue my career,” Zito said. “And that’s why Devon and Charlie left.”
Nevertheless, Zito is all for doing future festival gigs with the original Brotherhood lineup.
“Whenever you get out of something and look back, it’s like, ‘Wow, that was awesome,’” he said. “And I also realized that at the time we were doing it. Definitely there are no hard feelings. I love those guys.”
During Zito’s years with the Brotherhood, Neville, like Winter, encouraged Zito to unleash his guitar chops.
“Cyril always wanted me to rock,” he said. “But the previous years when I played like that, I was drinking and doing drugs.”
It took time for Zito to feel comfortable rocking again, to play without inhibition-easing substances in his system. “Now I’m trying to get over that and let it all hang out. Cyril thinks I can do it. Johnny thought I can do. I’m the one who didn’t always believe it.”
Zito may question himself and his talent, but he never doubts his blues foundation.
“I like emotional music,” he said. “Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Johnny Winter—when I hear them, I believe it. They mean it. That’s the most important thing to me.”