“Blue devils,” that age-old slang for depression, is what some say bred the blues. The music genre, born in the Deep South, gave African Americans an outlet to sing freely of suppression, societal challenges and racial discrimination.
More than a century later, with its wailing, soulful tones and lyrical talk of affliction and heartbreak, one thing is for sure: Blues musicians don’t sugarcoat life.
Especially the 2018 Blues Rock Artist of the Year, Mike Zito.
The Texas-based musician, who snagged the top award in Memphis, Tenn., at the Blues Music Awards (Blues Grammys, they call it), has been hailed as one of the most honest songwriters in the genre. And true to blues form, it’s not all pretty. Zito sings of perseverance through pain among his newfound sobriety after a long addition.
“All his hardships, life experiences and kind heart oozes out of every note his sings,” fellow musician and collaborator Anders Osborne is quoted as saying in Zito’s bio — also noting that Zito has “that rare kinda voice that resonates in your soul.”
Zito just released his 15th album, “First Class Life,” last month and along with fronting his own record label, Gulf Coast Records, he’ll bring his brand of blues to the Boulder Theater with a show that starts at 7 p.m. Saturday. The show, a benefit for Children’s Hospital of Colorado, will also feature Boulder County bluesman Jack Hadley.
Ahead of the show, Zito talked to the Daily Camera about being honest, Texas’ “mix-mash” of music and why he loves playing in Colorado.
Daily Camera: You’ve received many accolades from the Blues Music Awards over the years. Last year’s must have been special as Blues Rock Artist of the Year. Did you see that coming?
Mike Zito: Never saw it coming, at all. I thought for sure Walter Trout would win. I was shocked and pretty overwhelmed. Tony Joe White gave me the award. I will not soon forget.
DC: You’ve played and collaborated with some big-name blues and rock musicians, including Royal Southern Brotherhood. But you’ve also sustained a successful solo career. What do you see as the pros/cons of both paths?
MZ: It’s always fun to a part of a group where you can lean on each other and work as a team. You have to give and take and work together. It’s a collaboration, so you can’t get your way all the time. I always enjoy the camaraderie and the creative process, but sometimes I have my own ideas and I just want to do my own thing. I have always been that way.
I personally enjoy working on my own. I can take my time and let it flow. I like the idea that I don’t have to change anything if I don’t want to, and I usually don’t.
DC: You’ve been heralded for your honest songwriting. Tell me what you focused on exploring lyrically in “First Class Life”?
MZ: Honesty is the best thing I have going for me. I just put it all out there, warts and all. That’s what people look for and they relate. No one relates to perfection and make believe.
“First Class Life” is a pretty standard Mike Zito-style record — kind of funny to put it in third person. The title track is a humorously honest look at being thankful for sobriety and a new life after being an addict for so long. Some of the songs are just simple, fun bluesy tunes that are maybe tongue-in-cheek, but others are more serious and tell a story.
I always try to make sure I can get behind the lyrics vocally. I’m the one who has to sing these songs night after night and I need to believe what I am singing.
DC: In Beaumont, you’re just a hop over from Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta, birthplace of the blues. You seem to bring a blend of progressive and traditional blues to your shows. Tell me how living in Texas helped shaped your style.
MZ: Growing up in St. Louis I was immersed in straight-up blues and rock ‘n’ roll. I learned playing in bars for four to five hours a night from the age of 18.
Living in Texas for about 16 years now has really brought it all together for me. Especially along the Gulf Coast, folks don’t really care about what the “genre” is, they just know if it sounds good or not. Bands play blues, country, cajun, swamp-pop, rock ‘n’ roll all at once in a mix-mash. It’s just kind of all thrown together. It’s really what I have always loved about music, stretching the boundaries and letting all get loose.
DC: The upcoming Boulder Theater show is a benefit for the Children’s Hospital. Is this a cause that’s close to you?
MZ: I am certainly honored to be a part of the benefit and for such a great cause. I would hope it is a cause that’s close to all of our hearts. I have done work with Blue Star Foundation in the past, which directly worked with the children’s hospital.
I have five kids myself and I thank God every day that they are doing well.
DC: Have you ever played with Colorado’s Jack Hadley before?
MZ: I have not played with Jack Hadley, but I have been checking him out online and I am really digging his music. Should be a fun show together.
DC: After Saturday’s show, you’re back in Colorado a couple times later this month. What do you like about playing for audiences here?
MZ: I have been playing regularly in Colorado for the past 12 years. I love the vibe and the scenery, of course. The audience in Colorado loves music and feels it. They let you know, it’s contagious.
I always look forward to being back in Colorado and I am fortunate this month to play several shows. But only one show will benefit the Children’s Hospital and that is this Saturday night in Boulder.
If you go
What: Mike Zito and His Band performs a benefit for the Children’s Hospital Colorado with Jack Hadley Band
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder
More info: bouldertheater.com