Born in San Antonio on December 15, 1914, David McEnery rose to national fame as a singing cowboy on radio and television. He was especially known for writing songs that celebrated actual events, including his popular tune “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight.”
As a teenager McEnery attended Brackenridge High School in San Antonio and sang on local radio station KABC (now KKYX). By the time he was sixteen he left his hometown to pursue a musical career and rode freight trains and worked a number of odd jobs to make ends meet, including as a migrant farm worker and a singer in restaurants. It was during this time that McEnery earned the nickname “Red River Dave” because he often performed the song “Red River Valley.” Virginia radio station WPHR in Petersburg employed him as a singing cowboy from 1935 to 1936. He also had shows on WQAM in Miami from 1936 to 1937 and WOR in New York from 1938 to 1941. With his group the Swift Cowboys, he recorded for several record labels including Savoy and Decca.
In 1937 McEnery released his biggest hit, “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight,” a song capitalizing on the nation’s obsession with aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart’s mysterious disappearance. In 1939 McEnery made history with the first commercial country music broadcast on television when he performed the Amelia Earhart song at the World’s Fair in New York. He also married about that time.
During World War II McEnery wrote such topical songs as “I’d Like to Give My Dog to Uncle Sam” and “It’s for God and Country and You Mom.” He served as an infantryman during the war, after which he moved to California and appeared in several Western films, including Swing in the Saddle (1944) and Hidden Valley Days (1948). In 1952 he returned to San Antonio and hosted a television show on WOAI-TV for seven years and did some broadcasting on the border radio station XERF. For a time, McEnery withdrew from the musical profession and worked as a real estate agent. After his wife of thirty-five years died in 1974, he relocated to Nashville, Tennessee, where he unsuccessfully attempted to found a church. He then moved back to California, where he worked at Knott’s Berry Farm, performing music along with a variety of roping tricks with a lasso.
McEnery was known for being a prolific songwriter. At one time, on a bet, he wrote both lyrics and music for fifty-two songs in an eight-hour period, all while being handcuffed to a piano at the WOAI studios. Some of his more popular early songs were “Battle of the Alamo” and “Pony Express,” but he continued writing current event songs well into his later years, covering such topics as the Watergate scandal, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Ronald Reagan. He wrote and recorded “Shame is the Middle Name of Exxon,” after receiving a $258 bill from one of the company’s service stations for what he believed to be completely unnecessary repairs on his van. When the song was played in New York, Exxon’s company president heard it and refunded McEnery the entire amount of the bill. Other musicians also recorded McEnery’s songs, including Texas singer–songwriter Kinky Friedman, whose version of “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight” always was a crowd pleaser.
McEnery returned to San Antonio in the early 1980s and devoted himself to painting. Two decades later he was hospitalized with a kidney condition and died on January 15, 2002. He was buried in Sunset Memorial Park in San Antonio.