Q&A with Blues Caravan 2018: Mike Zito, Bernard Allison, Ally Venable - the blues titans of nowadays and tomorrow

"Ruf Records is a proven home of Blues and New Blues and has been for almost 25 years, Thomas Ruf is a true believer in the genre."

Ruf Records Blues Caravan 2018: Mike Zito, Bernard Allison, and Ally Venable

This is no ordinary club tour. This is the Blues Caravan 2018. If you’ve followed Ruf’s rolling revue since it started life in 2005, you’ll already know that these shows are must-see events, throwing together three stellar artists on one bill – then letting the chemistry do the rest. Traditionally, the Blues Caravan lineup has showcased the label’s breaking talent – from Aynsley Lister to Samantha Fish – and given fans a chance to catch the blues titans of tomorrow before they go ‘boom’. But in 2018, it’s time to mix things up. On this year's Blues Caravan you'll find not only one young gun with a dazzling career ahead of her (Ally Venable), but also two guitar heavyweights (Mike Zito, Bernard Allison) with sky-high reputations.

Ruf's tireless dedication to the Blues means in hunts far beyond age for it's new signings. The label has struck gold with Lone Star State powerhouse, Ally Venable. She started singing at an early age in church, and in recent years picked up the guitar and found her passion, establishing herself as a Texas Guitar Blues Slinger, all at the very young current age of 19. Ally’s songwriting and onstage performance, proves that she packs a punch. Ally is planting her flag in Europe and North America as the junior partner on the Blues Caravan. Some surnames command instant respect on the blues scene. As the son of the mighty Luther Allison – the late Chicago blues titan who was Ruf’s first signing back in 1994 – Bernard Allison has added to the family legend and carved out his own mythology as a world-class songwriter and performer. For this year’s Blues Caravan, he’ll be drawing on an acclaimed back catalogue that includes 1997’s US debut Keepin’ The Blues Alive and 2000’s classic Born With The Blues, and slipping between genres as only a master can. If you’re remotely serious about modern blues, you’ll have followed the twists and turns of Mike Zito’s fascinating career. The Missouri-born bandleader overcame his crippling early addictions to become one of modern America’s sharpest songwriters, and few artists have written with such stark eloquence as he did on 2011’s Greyhound album. In 2012, Mike threw us a curveball, lining up alongside Devon Allman and Cyril Neville as a key member of Royal Southern Brotherhood – and went on to stay with the supergroup for two critically feted albums. But the call of his own muse was too strong, and in 2014, Mike burst straight back into his solo career with Keep Coming Back and Make Blues Not War.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues people and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

Mike: I've learned that I am a rock n roll guy at heart, that just loves the Blues. The Blues means passion, commitment and honesty - there is no place to hide in the Blues.

Ally: When I first started playing guitar, I gravitated towards the players that could sing and play, and most of those players were blues artists, and the main one that stuck out for me was Stevie Ray Vaughan. Then I started looking into his influences, and that’s when I discovered what the blues genre was. What’s cool about Stevie is that he introduced so many people to blues that didn’t really know about it, and I hope to do that for people now with my music. I think why I love blues so much is because, it’s where ALL genres derive from: Rock, R&B, Country, Etc. They all base their sound from blues, and that feeling, and I think that’s why I can connect with it so well.

Bernard: That the blues is still alive and well all over the world. It’s one of the few genres that has always & always have followers. For me it allows me to continue the art form & legacy that my dad Luther Allison created. I'm very proud to try the best that I can to keep the Allison name alive.

How do you describe "Blues 2018 Caravan" philosophy, mission and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

Mike: It is a collective goal to make the people feelgood every night. My drive comes from the other musicians and trying to step up to the bar that Luther Allison set, it's unobtainable, but it's a purpose.

Are there any memories from Blues 2018 Caravan Tour which you’d like to share with us? What touched (emotionally) you?

Mike: So many great memories playing every night, it'll always be a cherished memory for the rest of my life. There are moments when Bernard and I are playing and it sounds like Luther and James Solberg, it gives me chills.

Ally: Being able to play with Mike & Bernard on stage is a highlight within itself. I’m so glad I have the opportunity to learn from them, and grow as a musician with these amazing players, and friends on this tour!

Bernard: For me the overall idea of being a member of the Blues Caravan with Mike Zito & Vanja Sky & Ally Venable is awesome! Celebrating the Life & Legacy of my dad and playing his music. Four different artists highlighting and showing how all the different styles come together as one.

"Music can help change the world, but we all have to be listening. There was a time when music was on the radio and dj's played music to inspire the people, but it is not like that anymore. People are still inspired, but they have to inspire themselves these days and they have to find those around them that are like minded." (Photo: Mike Zito, Bernard Allison & Thomas Ruf of Ruf Records)

Why did you think that the Ruf Records (label) continues to generate such a devoted following?

Mike: Ruf Records is a proven home of Blues and New Blues and has been for almost 25 years, Thomas Ruf is a true believer in the genre.

How has the Blues and Rock counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Mike: Well it has and continues to open my eyes to the real people and the real problems we all face. I am a very positive person and I believe this music can heal all of your suffering. I am a man of the people, I know that life hurts, it hurts me too. I believe when we stick together around the music, it's much easier.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Mike: Meeting Buddy Guy and Otis Rush at the Legends Nightclub in the late 1990's - I played in front of those guys, it was crazy and stressful - but Mr. Guy came and told me afterward that I was good and I could play there anytime. That made me feel like I could do this. Johnny Winter was a dear friend and hero and he told me that I was a "Good Blues Player" and that I should keep playing the Blues and making Blues records, the world needs more Blues Records.

Bernard: For me personally I’d have to say our encore song, my dad’s most notable song (Serious As A Heart Attack). All the Musician really close their eyes and pour their heart into every part of the song! My Daddy would be proud of us all calibrating on his classic song!

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Mike: I miss the honesty, the songwriting. I see people paying homage to the greats and old traditional Blues, but why are more of an act or a "Tribute" to, rather than the real deal. The Blues didn't end in 1960 - it carried on and carries on. I would like to hear more original songwriters in the Blues telling their own stories, not repeating someone else. But I am not fearful, I am hopeful. We have Gary Clark Jr, Tedeschi Trucks, Joe Bonamassa, Samantha Fish, Jarekus Singleton...the list goes on and on and they are paving the way for new Blues.

Ally: My hope for the blues is to introduce people into the genre in a new way with my music. My goal is to advance the blues genre, by taking all of my influences like, Bessie Smith, Lead Belly, SRV, T-Bone Walker, etc. and show appreciation to them through the music I write and the shows I play.

Bernard: I just think the fact of how the creators were so closely involved in each other’s music. Which I grew up watching their interactions & story telling true friendship! I really don’t have any fears I’m convinced that the blues is alive and well, with all the existing and upcoming artist. I think it’s all about not trying to go out and copycat the Muddy Waters or Stevie Ray or KoKo Taylor’s. I'm a strong believer of take bits and pieces from it all to find and create your own!

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music industry and circuits?

Mike: Don't quit. Walter Trout told me that 20 years ago, best advice ever.

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

Mike: It's all of the above. Music is like food, we all have different tastes. Blues to me is a way of life. I am here to make people feel good, and in return I feel good. I don't what life would be like without Blues, and I don't want to find out.

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

Ally: I feel like it’s challenging sometimes to be taken seriously as a musician for my work because I am so young and a female, pursuing this genre, but I love what I do, and when I hit the stage and I feel the love from my fans it makes it all worth it. I think the status of women in music is thriving.

What is the impact of Blues & Rock music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?

Mike: Both are a deep-rooted music in American Culture. They represent a time when things were not right, and they changed. Music can help change the world, but we all have to be listening. There was a time when music was on the radio and dj's played music to inspire the people, but it is not like that anymore. People are still inspired, but they have to inspire themselves these days and they have to find those around them that are like minded.

Ally: When I write songs, I try to write about what goes on in my life, or something that I think can relate to others. My favorite things to do as an artist is write songs, and play live, and my goal is to connect with people through my music on stage. To bring them together for the purpose to hear the music I write, and want to play for them. As artists we can always look to build each other up to reach a broader audience, and encourage one another to be successful in this business, no matter, what race, political agendas, or cultural implications we may have. Music is universal and a cleanse from all the hate in the world.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Mike: I think I want to go to Chicago in the mid 1950's and be at Chess Records and watch the magic going down. Nothing but honesty and great songs.

Ally: If I could go and spend my time anywhere for a day, I would want to go back and see Stevie play, and meet him. I think that would be very cool.

Bernard: Well no one ever wants to go there, but it’s going to happen to us all at some point. I have to say go hang out for the day with all those creators, that laid down the path for me and many others. And join their Blues Party that’s going up in heaven!!

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