Mike Zito is making the most of his second chance at a first-class life.
In May, the Memphis-based Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards named Zito best blues-rock artist. It’s his second BMA. In 2010, Zito and Cyril Neville won the blues song of the year award for their collaboration, “Pearl River.” This year also saw the release of Zito’s 15th album, First Class Life. A saying Zito often heard old-timers say at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings inspired the album’s title song.
“Most of my songs that are pretty good, I’ve usually stolen something from an AA meeting,” the southeast Texas–based Zito said. “These old guys would say, ‘You’re getting a second chance at a first-class life.’ ‘First Class Life’ is an autobiographical song, but it’s also funny and ironic and not so serious.”
Zito, a singer-songwriter and guitarist who’d once been in the throes of addiction, had been reluctant to write about his sobriety. He’d already recounted his story of finding hope and redemption in his 2013 album, Gone to Texas.
“I can’t keep telling the same story,” he said. “But I also continue to stay sober. And I never imagined things would be this good for a poor kid from south St. Louis. I’m thankful.”
Following his latest BMA and the number one debut First Class Life made on Billboard’s blues album chart in May, Zito aspires to even greater things. “Just one step at a time, but when my manager and I talk about this, we say the next thing I do needs to count,” he said.
Rueben Williams, Zito’s Larose-based manager, is one of his Louisiana connections. Houma blues artist Tab Benoit is another. Zito and Benoit met when Benoit performed in St. Louis in the late 1990s. Benoit was doing exactly what Zito wanted to do—touring and recording.
“Guys like Tab Benoit were making a name for themselves, but I had been playing other people’s music for so long,” Zito said of his years in bar bands and country bands and brief stint with a Nashville-based Christian music act. “When I came back to St. Louis in 1997, I put my own band together. I told myself I was going to write my own songs and play whatever I want. And that’s what I did.”
Zito recorded his first album, 1998’s Blue Room, in a single day at a cost of $1,000. He liked the results. Audiences who heard Zito perform his original songs liked them, too. “It changed everything,” he said. “People bought the CD. They requested my songs at shows, instead of Jimi Hendrix or Cream or whatever we were jamming on.”
In St. Louis, Zito worked hard, playing seven nights a week. But substance abuse stopped his musical progress. By 2000, he couldn’t keep a gig. “I had realized exactly what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t do it,” he said. “It was a crazy time.”
Zito survived addiction and found sobriety. He also married and moved to his wife Laura’s hometown, Nederland, Texas. “As soon as I got sober, I started playing music, writing music and recording again,” he said. “I realized that if you show up and do a good job, work hard and take the money home, you can pay the bills. Between New Orleans and Houston, there was enough work around the Gulf Coast.”
Zito reconnected with Benoit when he opened a show for the Louisiana blues artist in Beaumont. Benoit subsequently gave him a monthly gig at Benoit’s Lagniappe Music Café in Houma. In 2004, Zito began his now 14-year association with Rueben Williams.
In 2007, he caught another break, recording his first of three albums for California’s Delta Groove Music. David Z (Prince, Etta James, Buddy Guy) produced Today. Musicians Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), James “Hutch” Hutchinson (Bonnie Raitt) and Tony Braunagel (Taj Mahal, Robert Cray) played on it.
“All of a sudden I’m in the studio in Hollywood with these guys who played on some of my favorite recordings,” Zito said. “And I was in the right state of mind to take it all in and learn. It was a game changer.”
Zito’s move to the Gulf Coast greatly affected his musical outlook. “There’s this thing musicians do here on the Gulf Coast, not necessarily in New Orleans, but in Lafayette and Houston,” he said. “They don’t care what music style it is. They play it all at once. Blues and country and rock ‘n’ roll and Cajun music. That appeals to me.”
The late Dallas blues singer-guitarist Bugs Henderson’s St. Louis gigs introduced Zito to musical synthesis. “Bugs had a song called ‘American Music.’ He mixed it all up. I always loved his style and that song, because I like all of that roots music. I see the similarities. I don’t see the differences. I see how it all came from the same thing. I’m never writing a song saying, ‘Okay, let’s write a country song.’ What I’ve embraced about where I live is, if it’s good, they’ll like it.”