One of the true blue, larger-than-life Texas characters, Red River Dave McEnery tried his hand at just about every occupation that appealed to him at one point or another: prolific songwriter, blue yodeler, rodeo cowboy, television personality, real estate agent, Shriner, ventriloquist, fine artist, truck stop preacher, and many, many more. This brief article can only scratch the surface of the multifaceted entertainer’s storied life.
David Largus McEnery was born in San Antonio, Texas, on December 15, 1914, one of at least six children born to Gerald and Stella McEnery. As a youth, he began his entertaining career partaking in Texas’ national sport—rodeo—by spinning a rope and singing cowboy songs, drawing inspiration for the latter from the early greats of country music like Jimmie Rodgers and Vernon Dalhart. While still in his teens, McEnery made his radio debut on KABC in San Antonio, before going on the road at sixteen to strike it big as a cowboy star. He made his way to the East Coast, where he earned the nickname “Red River Dave” from his frequent performances of “Red River Valley” on Petersburg, Virginia’s WPHR. In 1936, he began his ascent to fame when he yodeled cowboy songs from the Goodyear blimp over WQAM in Miami, Florida. He arrived in New York around 1938 and remained there for several years, broadcasting over stations WOR, WMCA, and WEAF. During those years, he officially endorsed the Gretsch Synchromatic guitar, and for a while the company offered a signature “Red River Dave Special” archtop years before Chet Atkins’s association with the company.
Foreshadowing his later output, McEnery wrote “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight” in tribute to the lost aviatrix following her 1937 disappearance, which won him greater fame and remains one of his most popular and best known compositions to this day. He sang that song on a pioneering television broadcast at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, becoming—as he would later bill himself—the “world’s first television star.” While in New York, Red River Dave began his recording career on January 18, 1940, for Decca, going on to cut fourteen titles for the company over the course of that year. Subsequently, he recorded more prolifically for the Musicraft, Savoy, Continental, and M-G-M labels from 1944 into the early 1950s. 1944 brought him another song success in the form of the patriotic wartime number “I’d Like to Give My Dog to Uncle Sam” (also known as “The Blind Boy’s Dog”) on Savoy. But it was surely his radio performances that won Red River Dave his greatest fame during his life. After World War II, Dave returned to home to Texas, where he began an association with the long-running western swing group the Texas Top Hands. In the middle of the 1940s, he broadcast for a time on the Mexican border blaster station XERF in Villa Acuña, just across the border from Del Rio. He also ventured to Hollywood, where he appeared in the feature films Swing in the Saddle and Echo Ranch, as well as a series of soundies. In his hometown of San Antonio, he hosted regular radio and television shows on WOAI. Beginning in the mid-1950s, most of his recording activities were conducted with local Texas labels such as Tanner ‘n’ Texas. Thereafter, his musical output began to shift away from the traditional cowboy and hillbilly material that and toward his own brand of eccentric and often rather morbid topical songs about current events.
Over the course of the 1950s, his repertoire evolved from standard material such as “San Antonio Rose” and “Cotton Eyed Joe” to the likes of “James Dean (The Greatest of All)” and “The Ballad of Emmett Till”. His songs increasingly reflected his patriotic, conservative, and staunch,y anti-communist politics, as heard in such numbers as “The Bay of Pigs”, “The Great Society”, and “The Ballad of John Birch”. For a time in the mid-1960s, Dave turned his attention toward being a “dynamic real estate salesman,” even billing himself on contemporaneous records as “Singing Cowboy Realtor.” Though sales of his private press 45 RPM singles were usually fairly poor, Dave continued to record and publish his old-time yodeling songs about current events all the way into the 1980s, with numbers like “The Pine-Tarred Bat (Ballad of George Brett)”, “The Ballad of E.T.”, and “The Night Ronald Reagan Rode With Santa Claus”. In total, McEnery penned more than a thousand songs over the course of his life, many of which were never commercially recorded, and are now likely lost to time; in one 1946 publicity stunt, he wrote fifty-two songs in twelve hours while handcuffed to a piano. Later in his life, he broadened his horizons to include oil painting, usually western landscapes, which he sometimes sold. At the age of eighty-seven, David McEnery died in his native San Antonio.
Tanner ‘n’ Texas TNT-1003 was probably recorded in late 1953—presumably in San Antonio, Texas—and was released in November of that year. The same coupling of songs was later issued on Decca 29002, featuring a different take of “The Red Deck of Cards”, but seemingly the same take of “Searching for You, Buddy”. Those recordings were reportedly made on December 22, 1953, but it is unclear if that date produced the TNT or Decca take..
On “The Red Deck of Cards”, Dave re-worked the classic “Deck of Cards” war story popularized by T. Texas Tyler into one of the earliest of his anti-communist pieces, marking a shift in his recording career from (frankly sometimes rather bland) western themed “citybilly” songs towards the frequently politically-charged topical folk songs for which he would become known in later years.
Dave sings on the B-side, a war song also of his own composition: “Searching for You, Buddy”. Though contextually connected to the Korean War, the song makes no reference to any conflict in particular, the song could easily apply to any war.