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The Sand Rubies Are Arizona's Ultimate Bad Luck Story

The great "could have been" story is a tired tale in the music business. Anyone with more than a casual relationship with popular music can remember a band that should have been huge, likely an act similar to another act that did hit it big.

Mine: Christian pop geniuses, the 77's. They recorded an amazing album for Island in 1987. That album got a solid review from Rolling Stone but was overshadowed by U2's The Joshua Tree. The promotional window closed. Unfair? Maybe, but it happens.

You're probably familiar with The Gin Blossoms, right? They had two platinum albums and, until Jimmy Eat World put out "The Middle," were the de facto official band of Arizona.

The success of New Miserable Experience kicked off a Tempe signing frenzy, with The Refreshments riding the wave to their own moment in the sun and acts like Shamsi Ruhe's One becoming the subject of its own "could have been" tale. Every minute or so, a radio station somewhere in America plays "Hey Jealousy," but though that song's writer, Doug Hopkins, was solid, Tucson's The Sidewinders beat the Blossoms to the whole desert rock thing and might have been a little better at it.

Rich Hopkins and David Slutes were so close — they had a major-label deal and a stack of great songs — but then some jackass cover band from North Carolina sues them over their name. Everything falls apart.

As a result of the legal drama, their would-be big album is held up for two years and they change their name to The Sand Rubies. And, by that point, Tempe — not Tucson — is the center of our state's rock universe. Unfair? Probably, but maybe it was for the best.

Go to YouTube and check out "Santa Maria Street," "Guns in the Churchyard," or "Witchdoctor" and you'll hear why people had hope that The Sidewinders were going to put Arizona on the map musically. Why does Robin Wilson cash checks that should have David Slutes' name on them?

"Naiveté, really. You can attribute any failings on our part by having zero savvy in the music business," he says. "We were taken advantage of, made a series of boneheaded decisions, and hired inappropriate 'professionals' to guide our career."

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I prefer to blame the cover band from North Carolina who believed in the '90s that The Sidewinders in Tucson, playing original music, somehow were cramping the style of their unique blend of Top 40 covers. I tried to track those guys down, but no dice. Somewhat predictably, they faded into the obscurity they deserved. Meanwhile, the renamed Sand Rubies are still around, playing out now and again, but I imagine they'd be okay with needing a venue larger than the Sail Inn to hold their audience.

Even though it didn't work out the way they might have liked, Slutes seems to have made peace with the band's place in history as they celebrate their 25th anniversary with shows in Tempe and Tucson this week.

"Rich and I still play, write songs, and tour Europe, but we are completely resigned and content to do nothing more than that. We set out to write songs and play in a band, and 25 years later, we still get to do that."

Meanwhile, the Gin Blossoms are playing county fairs, the Fargodome Ribfest, and the Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival this summer. Though Gin Blossoms' payday probably offsets some of the pain of playing crappy venues for audiences hoping to hear that one song, it's possible The Sidewinders/Sand Rubies dodged a bullet called success. Believe me, no one should wish to play Temecula.
Sat., April 24, 4:30 p.m., 2010

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