One of Red River Dave McEnery’s favorite stories is about a time back in the late 1970s in Nashville when he was at a banquet with a lot of singers and music industry executives. By chance Dave and his wife overheard a conversation between two “experts” on country music discussing the classic song “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight.” (The song, a tribute to the pioneering flyer who disappeared in the Pacific in 1937, had been popular in the 1930s and had been revived during the 1960s by groups like the Greenbriar Boys, Jim Kweskin, Spanky and Our Gang and, more recently, Kinky Friedman and His Texas Jewboys.) One of the “experts” was saying that the song had been written by the legendary old cowboy singer Red River Dave, who had been dead for years. Dave and his wife finally stepped into this talk—one way to get a rise out of a man is to call him dead—and protested. The “legendary old cowboy singer” was very much alive and performing as well as ever. It took some time, but the two experts were finally convinced: Red River Dave was indeed alive and well and living in Nashville.
But it’s hard not to think of Red River Dave as a legend. He was one of the first great radio cowboys, and his strong, clear baritone voice introduced country music to thousands of northerners and midwesterners who had never heard of Jimmie Rodgers or Riley Puckett. Dave began his career in Texas during the Depression; he sang over local San Antonio stations as well as the “border stations” in Mexico. He learned many of his songs and tales directly from old trail drivers and cowboys in the ranch country around his home. He also won Texas championships in rope spinning and yodeling. In 1938 (at age twenty-four) Red River Dave was in New York broadcasting his own coast-to-coast program for the Mutual Network, and the next year he was also heard on NBC. Dave recalls that there were four big cowboy singers broadcasting nationally out of New York in those days: Wilf Carter (Montana Slim), Texas Jim Robertson,