When Mike Zito was growing up in St. Louis, he knew he wanted to be a professional musician, and he knew that one job would grant him access to some of his favorite players in the city: working in a music store.
“All of the musicians in town came to that store, so I was really fortunate," he says. "I met all these great musicians, and how to play music for a living, how to get out and do gigs.”
From there, Zito focused on learning as many different styles of music as he could.
“I did play in rock bands and cover bands,” he says. “I played in country bands. I started when I was 18. I was taking gigs with any kind of style band I could to learn how to play music, learn how to be in a band. But I always did fall back into a lot of the blues.”
When Zito was finding his feet in clubs, his interest in blues was far from the norm. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, popular interest in the blues was limited. Aside from Stevie Ray Vaughan and a few others, mainstream audiences seemed to have little enthusiasm for the music.
Then, things changed.
“It was pretty dead. But the ‘90s were probably the heyday for modern blues,” Zito says. “Later in the ‘90s it really took off. But early on it was, ‘You’re just playing blues, that’s not cool.' It was like after Stevie Ray Vaughan died, he became so much larger than life. It was, like, ‘Here comes Chris Duarte and Walter Trout and Tommy Castro.’ They started coming to St. Louis. They were traveling and doing this. They were on a little record label. How did they do that?”
He eventually began traveling to markets outside St. Louis, slowly finding his audience.
“I tried to start traveling,” he says. “I was going to Chicago and that was really tough. They don’t need some white kid from St. Louis coming to Chicago to play blues. We would go there, we’d go to Memphis, we’d start to do well in the smaller areas: Columbia, Missouri and Cape Girardeau, Missouri. But, really, I started really traveling once I moved to Texas.”
His arrival in Texas opened his eyes to some of the subtle variations in Texas music and Texas blues in particular. These days, his music may have more in common with the Lone Star State than the Show Me State.
“The band’s based, more or less, in Texas blues,” he says. “We play my songs and a lot of Texas-style blues. I really like it.”
Zito is aware that the blues world is a relatively small and interconnected group of musicians and fans and, he says, that's one of the best parts of being a blues musician today.
“I’ve had the experience enough times of playing in front of 10,000 people or some massive audience,” he says. “It’s fantastic. It’s a great feeling, but I don’t know if it’s better than playing for 300 people. When you’re playing for 10,000 people, I got to be honest, you’re playing to the front row. When you’re in that room and you can see everybody’s faces, they’re all with you, it’s way more personal, it’s much easier to play for friends.”
Zito plays at The Cotillion Ballroom with Tab Benoit on Wednesday evening.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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