That Desert Rock Sound

Rich Hopkins and David Slutes--you can call them the Sand Rubies--join the Tucson Music Hall of Fame

As an oft-repeated legend has it, one of the most successful partnerships in Tucson music occurred almost by accident.

Once upon a time--actually, it was 1985--a college kid named David Slutes surreptitiously added his vocals to some rough demo recordings by an acquaintance, former Peace Corps volunteer Rich Hopkins.

Hopkins, a guitarist, was trying to form a rock band and had recorded the demos at Slutes' home studio, but the singer intended for the session never showed up. So a few days later, he asked Slutes to play for him the instrumental track.

"So Dave gives me this look, because, you know, he's kind of a character," Hopkins remembers, "and he sheepishly tells me he added his vocals to the tracks. I heard them, and I was like, 'Holy shit, these are great, dude! You're in.'"

The Sidewinders were born, and they went on to become one of the most popular bands in Tucson during the late 1980s and early 1990s; the band is still active today. The group has been known as the Sand Rubies since 1993, when a lawsuit from another act called the Sidewinders forced them to change the name.

No matter whether you call them the Sidewinders or the Sand Rubies, this group has joined an elite club of local musicians: the Tucson Music Hall of Fame.

Inducted into the Hall of Fame at the annual Tucson Area Music Awards (TAMMIES) ceremony on Aug. 13 at the Rialto Theatre, Slutes and Hopkins are now ranked among local legends such as Travis Edmonson, Dean Armstrong, Ernie Menehune, George Howard, Al Perry, Brian Bromberg and Lisa Otey.

The Sidewinders played their first gig at the long-forgotten downtown haunt Jack's Pub during the spring of 1985, opening the show for Naked Prey. I drove Slutes to the gig, his onstage debut, after bolstering his courage with copious amounts of drink. (Full disclosure: I've been close friends with Slutes since childhood.)

The band recorded three albums as the Sidewinders, got signed by three major labels, embarked on several national tours and went through about 20 members by the early '90s, Slutes reckons.

After that copyright lawsuit forced Slutes and Hopkins to rename their group, they made one album under the Sand Rubies name in 1993 before disbanding due to internal strife.

But after about 18 months, they reunited in 1995 and have played regularly (albeit part-time) ever since, releasing six more albums since then, the most recent being last year's Mas Cuacha.

In that time, Slutes and Hopkins both have been involved in multiple projects that didn't involve the other.

For about 15 years, Hopkins has led his own band, the Luminarios, and these days is recording and playing with his girlfriend, Lisa Novak, a Houston singer-songwriter. They will release an album as a duo in September on Hopkins' independent label, San Jacinto Records, which was formed to release the 1988 Sidewinders debut album, ¡Cuacha!

Slutes keeps super-busy booking gigs as the entertainment director at Club Congress, and he currently performs with the bands Little Sisters of the Poor, Silverfox and the Zsa Zsas. He also has done time in such groups as the Vegas Kids, Therapists and Maryanne.

Hopkins downplays the ancient reports of acrimony between him and Slutes. It's clear that they've grown up a lot over the years.

"A lot of people in the past have talked about Dave and me getting into fights in the band, and struggling against each other--and that did happen sometimes on the road, but that was such a small part of it," says Hopkins, who is now 50. "We couldn't not play together for very long. I, personally, really missed it during those couple of years. I was always really unhappy if I wasn't playing with Dave."

Hopkins says that it has been years since the Sand Rubies was a business. "That takes a lot of the pressure off. Now we are just doing it to have fun."

Slutes, 45, agrees. "For me, I just enjoy writing and playing with Rich so much, we couldn't stay apart for long," he says. "We write so easily together, it's a pleasure. Whenever we come together, we hear the same stuff in our heads. When I hear his guitar, it inspires me, and whenever he hears me sing, it inspires him. It just makes a lot of sense. It just sounds right."

The pair actually was writing last week, working up a new song in rehearsals for the gig they were to play at the TAMMIES.

These days, the Sand Rubies are a quartet. Bass player Ken Andree also runs sound at Club Congress, and he moonlights in both Hopkins' Luminarios and Slutes' Little Sisters of the Poor. Drummer Winston Watson (a TAMMIES finalist this year) has played with everyone from local bands Gentlemen Afterdark, Giant Sand, Greyhound Soul and Little Sisters of the Poor, to national acts such as Was (Not Was) and Bob Dylan.

Both Hopkins and Slutes--interviewed separately--cite a New York City showcase concert for RCA Records executives in the late 1980s as the highpoint of their musical careers.

"We were just this little band from Tucson, not considering ourselves professionals or anything, and all these bigwigs liked us enough to offer us a record contract," Hopkins says. "That was amazing, the highlight of my career."

Slutes says: "Yeah, we got off the stage, and they said, 'We love what you're doing,' and we thought we had really pulled the wool over their eyes."

Although the band has been in existence for 23 years, neither Slutes nor Hopkins has much interest in touting their band's legacy.

"You know, it doesn't seem that long ago, actually," Hopkins says. "You blink once or twice, and 20-something years pass, but it's not like we're an institution or anything."

Slutes agrees. "It's not like we started anything. We weren't trying to establish anything new; we were still young and fans coming off our respect for bands that preceded us in Tucson, such as Green on Red, Naked Prey and Giant Sand. We were really the second wave, if anything."

Although the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies often have been referred to as creators, or at least purveyors, of the "desert rock" sound, they spent many years trying to argue against it. But they no longer have a problem with the desert-rock tag, perhaps because Hopkins and Slutes have been playing the music for so long.

"I think it's OK now. The backlash to that category is long gone," Slutes says. "I think it's a viable sound. I no longer have any problem with it. I think we have come to be comfortable with it."

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