Vintage Album Review – Doug Supernaw’s “Red & Rio Grande”

Before 1993, if you mentioned the name “Doug Supernaw,” most folks would probably assume your were citing some sort of motorcycle daredevil in a flame retardant suit with racing stripes down the sleeves, not a straight-collared country music star in the making.

In truth, at that time Doug Supernaw had already been playing in bands for some 14 years, and had spent five years in Nashville trying to make it as a professional songwriter. But it wasn’t until he returned to his native Texas and started a band called Texas Steel that an A&R representative from RCA sniffed him out, and saw a future country star in the making.

More than anything else, it’s the songs on Doug Supernaw’s debut album Red and Rio Grande that makes it to hold up so well now 27 years later. Though Doug only wrote or co-wrote four of the songs, he sure knew how to pick ’em, and some of them went on to be the pick of the litter for early 90’s country compilations and retrospectives.

“Honky Tonkin’ Fool” about an old barstool cowboy whose last request was to have a jukebox replace his headstone failed to impress radio much, and the song flopped out at #50. From there, the fate of Supernaw and the album could have been sealed. But after selecting the spirited “Reno” as the second single, Doug Supernaw was racing up the charts. Equating a certain hard-to-land woman to the impossible odds one finds in the casinos of Sin City’s little cousin, this Supernaw co-write set his career in motion, and soon he was one of the most promising up-and-comers in the genre.

This led to “I Don’t Call Him Daddy,” which for many fans is Supernaw’s signature song. Divorce is such a common theme in country, but it had never been told from this particular perspective of a little boy assuring his dad that no matter who was sharing his mother’s bed, his real dad would still be #1.

Promising to not leave a dry eye in the house for anyone who’s been a party to a divorce in any capacity, “I Don’t Call Him Daddy” took a trope of country music and made it emotionally potent again. Written by Reed Neilsen, the song’s chorus and plot twist is a little reminiscent of Kenny Rogers and “Coward of the County.” That’s not surprising since The Gambler recorded the song in 1987 too, but failed to garner much interest with it. For Supernaw it became his first and only #1 hit.

Red and Rio Grande is a traditional country record with plenty of steel guitar and fiddle, which you couldn’t take as a given in 1993 as arena country was very much entering the fray and injecting a lot of rock influences in the genre. Supernaw offered a bit more twang compared to some of his contemporaries. It’s also a Texas record, with the title track hearkening to the two rivers that define the northern and southern border of his native state, and Supernaw’s style reminding you more of Mark Chesnutt and George Strait as opposed to Garth Brooks or Travis Tritt.

“The Perfect Picture (To Fit My Mind),” “Five Generations of Rock County Wilsons,” and “I Would Have Loved You All Night Long” are all great country songs for any era. And like Supernaw was apt to do, he would pay respects to many of the old artists and songs of country past in the lyrics, and signal his role as a traditionalist, like he did in “You’re Gonna Bring Back Cheatin’ Songs.”

“Daddy’s Girl” may be the album’s only soft spot. A fine profile of an archetype perhaps, but it fails to provide any compelling reason to be included on an otherwise heartbreaking country album. But it’s chased by “Carousel,” which is the only song written solely by Supernaw on the album. It speaks to the “holding on for dear life” aspect that would define his career as time went on.

Not knowing whether to be scared
Of all the ups and downs
By the face you could never tell
That inside I’m hurtin’
I’m always on the move
But never gainin’ ground

Not destined for country music superstardom, despite the success of Red and Rio Grande which ended up going Gold, the struggles Supernaw sings about in “Carousel” would result in eventually losing a record deal, and a lost decade-plus of his life as he struggled with personal issues.

When Doug Supernaw passed away on November 13th, it wasn’t some massive hole he left behind in country music that made us hurt. His career was fleeting, and fraught with trouble. But the songs of Red and Rio Grande, and others from his brief catalog hit you in ways no other country song could, and may never again.

1 3/4 Guns Up

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