The timeless desert rock sound that Hopkins pioneered in the late ‘80s with the Sidewinders is revisited anew, with breathtakingly beautiful results.
BY FRED MILLS
Houston-by-way-of-Tucson musician Rich Hopkins has never traveled too far afield from the vaunted desert rock sound that he pioneered way back in the late ‘80s with the Sidewinders; the Arizona outfit was profiled by yours truly as part of BLURT’s “College Rock Chronicles” series not long ago. Yet throughout his lengthy career he’s consistently explored new themes and sonic textures, perennially restless, yet at times optimistic, even metaphysical, and ultimately eager to explore that duality of nature. With umpteenth album My Way or the Highway (released via Hopkins’ label San Jacinto and Europe’s Blue Rose; it follows 2014’s Tombstone and 2015’s Enchanted Rock), he seems to have attained a state of balance—grace, even.
This comfortable-in-my-skin quality typically occurs only for veteran artists who’ve seen career highs while going through the occasional personal low, along with the inevitable humility-fostering slings and arrows that come with operating under the public microscope; at some point they realize that the ego drive of youth is ephemeral, while the stability of alliances and relationships is eternal, and that in turn helps feed the muse.It should be noted that the Sidewinders still reconvene a couple of times each year—they’ve been a welcome addition to several of BLURT’s SXSW day parties in Austin each March—but Hopkins’ primary focus these days is his solo work with Luminarios (above), which include his wife and fellow songwriter/singer Lisa Novak along with a number of veteran Austin and Tucson musicians, all of whom have an instinctive empathy for where he’s coming from—which is to say, the desert.
Indeed, …Highway is both a literal and mental travelogue, commencing with the part-recited/part-sung “Angel of the Cascades” (a haunting ballad aglow in humming organ and a “Sweet Jane”-like guitar melody, it’s about a magical trip to Mexico that Hopkins and Novak undertook) and culminating in the elegant, urgent “Walkaway Again” (whose rich vocal harmonies, gentle rhythmic pulse and descending chord progression make it a direct descendent of Hopkins’ Sidewinders material). In between, there’s the brash, Crazy Horsian “Gaslighter”; the cosmic cowboy twang of “If You Want To”; a windswept, Latin-flavored acoustic guitar instrumental titled “Lost Highway” that could easily soundtrack a road-trip scene into Mexico; and “Chan Kah,” a somber-yet-lovely midtempo number subtitled “A Mayan Love Story, a Story of Creation” that builds to one of Hopkins’ patented guitar crescendos.
Hold that thought: Throughout the album, echoes of the Sidewinders’ oeuvre can be heard, although the Luminarios never do this in a forced or calculated manner. Hopkins has always had a signature guitar style, part Neil Young/part Mike Campbell, along with a comfort zone of familiar chord progressions that serve his songs well; it’s an expansive, anthemic, deeply melodic sound that fans have come to love and can spot within a few seconds of a song’s beginning. Structurally, for example, the 7-minute “Gnashing of Teeth” will remind listeners of the ’winders eternal “What She Said” (from 1989’s Witchdoctor), while “Want You Around” has the same brisk jangle vibe that marked much of that earlier band’s material—although Novak’s creamy lead vocal lends the tune an unexpectedly blissful undercurrent, too. (Mrs. Hopkins just might be Mr. Hopkins’ secret weapon these days.)
With My Way or the Highway, then, Rich Hopkins hasn’t so much “returned to his roots” (a clichéd term if there ever was one) as he’s embraced anew all the core elements that earned him a devoted audience in the first place. It’s quite possibly the strongest, most consistent record he’s made since 1994’s powerhouse Luminarios album Dirt Town, which itself represented a personal manifesto, cementing Hopkins’ musical style in the wake of the Sidewinders’ then-recent demise (as the Sand Rubies, due to an enforced name change that’s detailed in the above-referenced Sidewinders story).
And it also represents, in addition to those desert rock sounds, a thematic celebration of Hopkins’ deep, abiding love for the Southwest. From the cover art, which depicts a near-empty, impossibly straight highway aiming off into the vanishing point, to the booklet photos accompanying each song’s lyrics (among them, some beaming Mexican kids, a close-up of ocotillo cactus in brilliant full bloom, and a red-dirt desert punctuated by rocky outcroppings), it’s also a visual personal statement, one that is guaranteed to make anyone who’s every fallen in love with the desolate beauty of the desert achingly nostalgic.
Of that last point, I can offer personal testimony to how much this record makes me miss that sun-kissed region. Rich, you were largely responsible for my moving to Tucson all those years ago, where I enjoyed a pretty great decade-long run. I’m gonna get back there one day, too. Meet you at the pueblo? Maybe even down on Santa Maria Street…
“Can’t believe we gotta leave this place
Think we saw the Angel of the Cascade
Think we met an angel
Yeah… you’re everywhere that I go
In everyone that I know that I will be there.” —from “Angel of the Cascades”