BEAUMONT, TX – On “The Road Never Ends,” the second track of Mike Zito’s new June 11 CD, Gone to Texas, he cranks things into the stratosphere with a sonic blast of electric slide guitar and blistering vocals, accompanied on vocals and harmonica by the great Delbert McClinton. Also along for the ride on his label debut solo CD for Ruf Records are special guests Sonny Landreth on guitar, Susan Cowsill on vocals and Lewis Stephens (Delbert McClinton, Freddie King) on keyboards. Zito expertly matches them with his core band, The Wheel: Jimmy Carpenter – sax and guitars; Rob Lee – drums; and Scot Sutherland – bass. The result effectively announces one of the most exciting and highly-anticipated new releases of the year.
Recorded at Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana, Gone to Texas was produced by the Beaumont, Texas-based Mike Zito and engineered by long-time New Orleans notable David Ferrell, giving the album’s mix a decided Crescent City bent, while embracing Zito’s Texas blues and roots influences. “Rainbow Bridge,” aided and abetted by some killer Sonny Landreth guitar work and soulful Susan Cowsill vocals, sounds like a long-lost Little Feat song. The lead-off title track is an autobiographical tale of redemption and catharsis for Zito, who literally lived the tale, with a bit of an Allman Brothers musical twinge. “Subtraction Blues” deals with a man whose dealings with his woman “just don’t add up,” spiced with a funky Second Line feel. “Take It Easy,” one of the two non-original tracks on the CD, is Zito’s soothing take on the Delbert McClinton-penned ballad. The other cover is Mike’s unique version of Beaumont’s own Blind Willie Johnson’s “Let Your Love Shine on Me.” And on “Texas Flyer,” he salutes the legendary “Texas Cannonball” himself – Freddie King – in the best way possible: with a flurry of stinging blues guitar leads that are still hanging somewhere over the Lone Star State.
Make no mistake about it, Gone to Texas IS a very special – and personal – album for Mike Zito.
“Texas saved my life. Sounds a bit dramatic, but absolutely true,” says Zito. “Historically, Texas has been the saving grace of many desperate men. In the early 1800s, men who had large debts or committed crimes would run off to Texas to hide from the colonies and their creditors. This was called ‘Gone to Texas.’ New Spain (Mexico at that time, including Mexican Texas) took in all the runaways and vagabonds it could hold. Many of these men found a new life in what would be Texas, returned for their families, paid their debts off, only to fight and die for the freedom of Texas from Spanish rule.
“Texas was my last stand as well. I ended up there after running away from all of my problems and mostly myself. I left on the Greyhound bus and got off in Texas, leaving my family behind. My drug addiction is no secret and Texas is where I confronted my problems and made a change that has saved my life. I met a woman who lived in Texas years before and was spiritually drawn to her. She has stood by my side though it all and has given me the love and support I needed to stand on my own two feet. South East Texas has taken me in and given me a new life. This is a much different place than the south side of Saint Louis where I grew up. They all take it for granted around here, but it is a very unique place in the world.”
For Zito, the band he put together for the Gone to Texas sessions – The Wheel – is also special to him. “These musicians were hand-picked over the years,” he states. “These are some of my favorite musicians on planet earth; my dream band. We all have one thing in common: make the music feel good! It is no surprise that this most important album to me is being released on Ruf Records. I have wanted to be a Ruf recording artist since 1998. Thomas Ruf and I have tried many times to get together over the years but the Universe wasn’t ready for us until now!”
Since 2012, Mike Zito has also been a founding member of his OTHER band, Royal Southern Brotherhood, along with Cyril Neville, Devon Allman, Charlie Wooton and Yonrico Scott; and while he continues to record and tour with that band of brothers, he’ll also be doing shows with The Wheel throughout the rest of the year in support of his solo album. He’s managed by Reuben Williams of The Thunderbird Management Group (985-798-5665; email@example.com); and is booked by Piedmont Talent (www.piedmonttalent.com).
Mike Zito has been a rising star in the blues/roots world for the past several years as a performer, songwriter and producer. In 2010, the title-track for his Pearl River album, which he co-wrote with Cyril Neville, won the Blues Music Award as “Song of Year;” and he also produced last year’s BMA winner for “Best New Artist Debut Album” by labelmate Samantha Fish. His last solo CD, Greyhound, was nominated for “Rock Blues Album;” and he’s currently nominated as a member of Royal Southern Brotherhood in the same category for that band’s eponymous debut CD at the upcoming Blues Music Awards in May.
The natural habitat of the true musician is not the gleaming studio, a glitzy showbiz party or a five-star hotel. It’s the road. And if multiple Blues Music Award winner Mike Zito had a dollar for every mile of tarmac he’s burnt since his breakout in the early-’90s, they’d be piled up to his chin. “There’s just something in me,” considers the solo bandleader and Royal Southern Brotherhood co-founder (with Devon Allman and Cyril Neville), “It’s there in all musicians. You gotta love the road to be a part of this world. You’re right there, looking in people’s eyes, swapping stories, shaking hands…”
There’s an undeniable romance about a life in motion – and an enduring magic about the moment when the house lights go down, the roar of the crowd goes up and the shadows take the stage. For Mike, who began touring the Midwest circuit at the age of eighteen, and has since crossed twenty-plus countries as guitarist with the Brotherhood, this is when things get serious. “In my band, The Wheel, if you’re not already with us, you’d better get on board,” he grins. “Because otherwise we’re gonna knock you down!”
Released in August 2014 in the US as the latest installment in Ruf Records’ Award winning live series, Zito’s Songs From The Road is a two-disc set that captures Mike at full throttle on his adopted home-turf. “This DVD and live album were recorded on January 10th, 2014, at Dosey Doe at The Woodlands, TX, to a sold-out crowd of crazy Texans,” he recalls. “The audience was on fire from the first note. The band played with such energy and passion. I was overwhelmed many times throughout this performance by the sheer energy of love that poured out of every soul in that building. It was a truly magical night, one I’ll never forget.”
Mike Zito And The Wheel: Songs From The Road captures the push ‘n’ pull between Mike and his all-star lineup of Jimmy Carpenter (sax/vocals), Scot Sutherland (bass/vocals), Lewis Stephens (piano/organ) and Rob Lee (drums/percussion). “With the guys in The Wheel,” explains the bandleader, “we’re all on the same page. We’re not interested in solos, we want to play together.”
White-hot chemistry meets world-class material on Songs From The Road, whose set list dips into pivotal moments from Mike’s storied past. There’s Greyhound: the gritty travelogue recalling the desperate events of September 2002, when a drug-addicted Mike stole his father’s credit card and bought a one-way bus ticket to Florida. “I decided I’d be doing everybody a favor if I just left, got as far away as I could go,” he remembers.
On the emotional flipside, there’s Rainbow Bridge, written about the rush that a reformed Mike felt on the final approach to home. “The Rainbow Bridge is one of the tallest bridges in the South,” he explains. “I would have to drive to Louisiana to play gigs, and then I’d drive home over that Rainbow Bridge. And I knew that when I was hitting the bridge, I was almost home.”
Longtime Zito fans in the Dosey Doe crowd would have been waiting for Pearl River: the song co-written by Mike and Cyril Neville in reference to civil rights campaigner Dick Gregory, which planted the seed for the Royal Southern Brotherhood. Likewise, the cheers are deafening for the title track of last year’s Gone To Texas album. “Part of the story of that song,” he notes, “is that historically, people go to Texas to get their lives together. And I did too.”
True enough. Ask Mike for his backstory and he’ll give you the cold, hard truth. In his own words, the bandleader “grew up poor in St. Louis”; in a blue-collar family whose father logged 40-hour weeks at the local brewery. Ten years working at a downtown guitar shop, under the tutelage of an older employee, exposed him to titans like B.B. King, the Allmans and Eric Clapton (and from there, Joe Pass, Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson), and though he was fired from early cover bands for refusing to mimic the solos, by 1997, he had released his debut album Blue Room. “The first time you hear yourself,” recalls Mike, “you think, ‘Wow, that almost sounds like music!’”
There were bumps in the road, of course. By the post-millennium, creeping alcoholism and drug abuse had threatened to rob Mike of his talent and livelihood. For a time, all seemed lost. But since the epiphany of meeting his beloved wife (“I give her all the credit in the world”), Mike has blossomed as both a man and musician, and in 2014, he can reflect on a run of thrilling solo albums, plus two universally renowned studio releases with the Brotherhood. “It’s all working out,” he beams, “and I couldn’t be more thankful.” “Gone To Texas is an old slang expression for the man of the house has split,” Zito says with a smirk, “My life now couldn’t be further from that.”
Happy, successful, surrounded by his loving family and juggling a fistful of celebrated projects, perhaps you’d understand if Mike were content to rest on his laurels. Not a chance. In 2014, as Songs From The Road proves, that endless freeway is still a siren-call that this lifelong road-dog can’t ignore. “The road is part of the story,” he concludes, “and that’s why there are so many songs about it. When a tour ends, I can’t wait to get home. But by the week after, I’m itching to get back out there. It’s like the song says, the road never ends.”