photo of Barry Zito

Barry Zito

CMA Foundation

Barry Zito knows a thing or two about life and its curveballs. He also knows just about everything about throwing the perfect curveball in baseball. A master on the mound in the major leagues for years, Zito had a virtually unstoppable curve that often proved unbeatable and earned him the coveted Cy Young Award right out of the gate at age twenty-four. A studied and disciplined scholar at whatever art he’s attempting to master, the world class athlete is now throwing that heat in a new direction – his music. And with the release of his debut EP, NO SECRETS, he’s ready to reveal an entirely new side of himself to the world – one that might surprise people who know him only for his pitching prowess and roller coaster career.

Zito has actually been playing guitar since his early 20’s, while on the road in the minor leagues, and he began dabbling in songwriting for fun a few years later. Born with a natural athletic ability, he’s also always possessed a love and talent for music that he comes by quite naturally. Zito grew up in a household surrounded by music. His father Joe worked as a conductor/arranger for Nat King Cole and eventually an artist manager, and his mother Roberta had been one of Cole’s backup singers in the Merry Young Souls. Barry recalls having a fascination with music pretty early on.

After retiring from his baseball career in 2015, Zito immediately turned his full attention to that second love and began crafting the songs that would fill his first album. You could almost say it was fate or kismet that brought the World Series winner full circle to a Triple A team in Music City right before he retired, and for Zito, it was definitely a long, winding journey full of interesting twists and turns that landed him there and ultimately inspired the songs on NO SECRETS.

“Before baseball became a constant focus, Dad always had different instruments in the house, and I remember when I was five playing a valve trombone and trying to match the notes to the Michael Jackson song I was hearing, so I think I had an ear for it. I was raised in more of the Jazz and R&B worlds since my dad was a Jazz conductor and arranger. He was actually self- taught — he didn’t go to school past the eighth grade and was from the Bronx. My mom was a classically trained singer who at 19 was singing with Nat, and my dad was conducting for Nat when they met. I remember growing up listening to a lot of Gino Vanilli, I was raised on his record, and a record called Time and Tide, by an artist named Basia. These are the sounds my dad loved and that I listened to, but if I had to pick one I would say Stevie Wonder is my greatest influence.”

The family moved to San Diego when Zito was six so his mother could work with the metaphysical church his grandmother created, leaving his dad with plenty of time to devote to Barry’s pitching endeavors. It became apparent early on to Mr. Zito that his son had a gift that could take him far. “I was able to throw this uncanny curveball at seven or eight, and I was much taller than everyone else,” recalls Zito. ”And my dad knew in baseball they send scouts around the world to find talent. Dad always said, ‘if you master three pitches, they’ll come and find you.’ So from then on, I worked year round doing baseball.”

At twenty-one Zito became a first-round pick and landed a contract with the Oakland A’s, and within a year was pitching in the majors. By his third year, he boasted a sparkling 23-5 record and was given the Cy Young Award as the American League’s best pitcher. A few years later in 2007 he made history by signing the richest contract ever for a pitcher at the time, with the San Francisco Giants, and subsequently launched one of the most confounding and frustrating chapters in his life’s story. Rich beyond his wildest dreams, his confidence and performance wavered, and Zito began to realize he wasn’t like all the other players.

“As the years of my career progressed I realized I was raised by musicians — creative, sensitive, beautiful people, and there’s not a lot of room in professional sports for sensitive vulnerable anything really. It was a real struggle for me to embrace my differences and be authentically who I was. It probably wasn’t until the last few years of my career that I was able to do that. That’s why I really love being a musician now, because it is who I feel I have always been at my core.”

Living in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills with money, looks, fame, and everything else one could want, Zito not only began to lose his golden arm for a bit as his performance plummeted at times, he began to lose himself as well. Fans were brutal when he repeatedly failed to deliver consistent greatness, and at the point when he should have been happiest, he was at his lowest. There were trials and tribulations to follow, both personal and professional, and through it all Barry was led to become a Christian, and his whole life changed.

Through all of the vast changes in his life, Barry’s move to Nashville, TN would prove to be one of the most influential. He not only discovered a renewed love for the game during his year with the Nashville Sounds, he also found time to focus on his songwriting. After talking about his musical aspirations in an interview with The Tennessean newspaper, an ASCAP rep contacted him and within months Barry began collaborating with some Nashville songwriters. He devoured songwriting books during his final summer in the locker room, and at the end of the season announced his retirement from baseball. Less than a year into his songwriting career, Barry threw all of his passion behind his music, heading into the studio and recording the collection of autobiographically-tinged tunes that would become his debut EP. For Zito, the project released years of pent-up emotions and feelings that had no place in baseball, but still had to be expressed.

“I’m going at my music probably with more ferocity than I even did with baseball, because I’ve been waiting for years to work on music full time. Every day is like a dream doing this… I’m happier than I’ve been consistently probably since 2002, my Cy Young year.”

Songs on the new project like “Secret To Life” peel back the curtain and give listeners a unique glimpse into Zito no one has ever seen before. The profoundly personal tune illustrates his firsthand experience with how money, fame and celebrity aren’t really the gateway to fulfillment. The EP’s songs definitely draw on universally relatable themes, as in “Wrong,” a tune that addresses the habit we all have of telling ourselves things that we know aren’t true, but that we can’t seem to be totally honest and come clean about.

“Undiscovered You,” inspired by Zito’s wife Amber, speaks to the way a woman possesses a special, hidden side she reveals only to her partner. “There’s always that part of a woman that she keeps hidden, that only one person gets to see. And what an honor it is as a spouse or boyfriend to get to see that,” says Zito. “My wife has her side like that, and she was a big inspiration for this song. I know this amazing, intimate side to her that nobody else gets to know and that’s really beautiful.”

The album narrates Zito’s journey through life as someone who has experienced life’s pinnacles and its pitfalls and come out the other side a better man. On tunes like “My Own Path” he opens up fully about demons he’s faced head on and conquered and the challenges in embracing your own path in the midst of adversity and despair. The anchor of this intimate collection may well be “Home” though, a song penned about his Christian faith that encapsulates the arduous journey he’s taken and how it ultimately led him right back to faith in God and himself. Penned during a particularly tough time in his baseball career, the song perfectly captures the angst and longing we all feel just trying to find our place in the world and how, in the end, we find we already possessed everything we were seeking deep inside ourselves.

“I wrote that song two months before I got saved,” recalls Zito, “and I was just in a nightmarish place in my life. It’s more of a story song, and it starts off with ‘I’ve been walking this road for so long, can’t see where I’m going, forgot where I’m from’. And then I make it very personal talking about how as a little boy my dad always told me to dream big and dream always — that was a catchphrase of my father’s. It talks about how I worked hard and saw the money and fame and all those good things, but then the demons of pride were there waiting too. In the end the song describes how I realized I never really left home. That’s what I learned in the end – really nothing changed, I just started believing and having faith.”

For Zito, NO SECRETS is a profound statement from a writer who has stared down his own demons firsthand and come out the other side with plenty to share. He’s done with the secrets, the ‘No comments’, and the quiet contemplation. It’s time to let the music do the talking.

Programming descriptions are generated by participants and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of SXSW.

Programming descriptions are generated by participants and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of SXSW.

Events featuring Barry Zito
Events featuring Barry Zito