Red River Dave McEnery

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The Independent Online

David McEnery, singer and songwriter: born San Antonio, Texas 15 December 1914; married; died San Antonio 15 January 2002.

One of country music's great eccentrics, Red River Dave McEnery is best known for a seemingly inexhaustible string of "event" songs written in response to the headlines of the day. He found inspiration in stories as diverse and unlikely as the murder of Sharon Tate ("The California Hippy Murders"), the kidnapping of Patty Hearst ("The Ballad of Patty Hearst") and America's most notorious nuclear accident ("The Ballad of Three-Mile Island") and proved a masterful self-publicist.

A native San Antonian, Dave McEnery was, as a child, fascinated by tales of the "Old West" and found himself drawn to the traditional cowboy ballads of the era. One of these, "Red River Valley", became a particular favourite and led to the sobriquet by which he is widely known.

A proficient yodeller and performer of rope tricks, he gained work on a number of radio stations along the US-Mexico border before, in 1938, heading for New York. In 1939 he performed "Amelia Earhart's Last Flight", a tribute to the lost aviatrix, during a pioneering commercial television broadcast from the New York World's Fair and for years after billed himself as "The World's First Television Star".

In 1946 he confirmed a burgeoning talent for unusual self-promotion by having himself handcuffed to an upright piano for 12 hours and inviting members of the public to submit potential song titles drawn from a selection of magazines. A move to Hollywood saw him appear on the silver screen alongside the singing cowboy Jimmy Wakely before going on to star in a series of short films of his own for Universal Pictures.

Over the coming decades he starred on local television, sold real estate and worked as a preacher, becoming the first and perhaps only person ever to deliver a sermon entirely in CB jargon. He continued to write "event" songs, releasing scores of them on his own record labels. His subjects included the Bay of Pigs debacle, Watergate, James Dean, the mass suicide of the followers of the Reverend Jim Jones and Don Larsen's perfect game in baseball's 1956 World Series.

Having returned to San Antonio, McEnery enjoyed his status as a cult figure and returned to prominence once again when, having been overcharged for the repair of his truck by a local service station, he composed "Shame is the Middle Name of Exxon" in retaliation. An executive with the company eventually heard the song and, much to the veteran singer's delight, a full refund was ordered.

Paul Wadey