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the life of a famous unknown

by Mel Brown
Photos courtesy Dorothy Alsbrook

Kathy Dell at Sweet 16
“The Sweet Sixteen Singing Sweetheart of KCFH” described Katie Doehl perfectly. Here she stands in the western shirt she sewed herself with her new SILVERTONE guitar on KCFH’s first day of broadcast, March 1, 1949.

The history of American country music is often thought of in terms of its many stars, icons, and legends. These same individuals are commonly believed to represent the spirit, nature or even the ideals of this music in their lives, efforts or accomplishments; this is a justifiable belief. But for every star performer who has made it big in Nashville, New York or Hollywood since this music began, there are dozens of other singers, song writers and musicians with equal or occasionally greater talent who never made it big but who shared other traits with their famous colleagues, those of the dedication, commitment and desire to entertain. Their roles in the overall history are as worthy of documentation as any, since they are perhaps the real heart beat of the music ... steady, true and essential.

Cindy Walker, Texas Ruby, Laura Lee McBride, Charline Arthur, Goldie Hill, Jeannie C. Riley, Tanya Tucker, and Barbara Mandrell are all Texans recognized for the special legacies they each created for the musical history of their home state. Kathy Dell is one more name which could be added to this list as she was just as much a pioneering woman of country music as some of those named. Dell was not well known statewide during her performance career; however, in that area of South Texas made up of the broad Coastal Bend and multiple county “Crossroads” regions below San Antonio she was a very well known, popular and a significant figure for nearly half a century.

Kathy Dell practices the “Cossack Drag”
Eighteeen year old Katie Doehl practices the “Cossack Drag” on Pevo, the Golden Palamino gelding that she owned for over twenty five years. His pale golden coat reminded Katie of beer, which in Polish is pevo.

Dell’s true importance to the state’s music history is found in the pioneering spirit and unconventional accomplishments of her career. She was a strong willed, self directed woman who broke ground in significant cultural ways while finding relative success in two male dominated professions. She did this before the modern feminist movement began, first as a rodeo star and then as a country musician and band leader. That she began her careers midway through the 20th century is exemplary of a unique woman who was possessed with uncommon ability and courage.

Kathy Dell  riding bull at rodeo
“Coming out of chute number 7 is Miss Katie Doehl of Cuero, Texas!” Wearing monogrammed chaps and holding on until the buzzer, Pro Cowgirls were required to smile during their wild rides on the “rough stock.”

Two particular aspects stand out in her musical history; the first being that she was a self made musician and band leader in a male dominated industry which routinely expected deference from its women. In contrast to the more common, country performance careers of women in America’s post World War Two era, no stage minded father, ambitious husband, or crafty manager pushed her onto or along the path which she alone chose for herself. Secondly and perhaps more significantly, in the mid-1980s Dell added Texas-Mexican players to her group and incorporated songs of música tejana into the band’s set lists. She sought out jobs at predominantly Mexican American venues and adapted her shows accordingly. Those interracial bands eventually represented models of cultural diversity that were rare for her contemporaries and for her gender in particular.

Kathy Dell  and Square D Ranch Hands
The Square D Ranch Hands about 1960 were, L to R, Johnny Naunheim on lead guitar, Glen Halmark on drums, Kathy Dell with her new “moss green” Gretsch Anniversary model guitar and “Lefty” Heine on fiddle. Wearing the bright red tunics Kathy made for the band, they were at the Westhoff American Legion Hall for a Saturday night dance.

However, unless one was familiar with the hundreds of beer joints and dives, V.F.W., American Legion, and S.P.J.S.T., K.J.T., or Sons of Hermann dance halls, German shooting clubs, the annual Cuero Turkey Trot, various Chili Cook Offs or any of the Catholic or Lutheran church festivals of South Texas in the 1960s, seventies and eighties one probably never heard of Kathy Dell, as she came to be known professionally. Anyone who did frequent some of those places may recall her clear voice and lively shows. For those who do not know of her, it may be surprising to learn that a very talented Texan devoted most of her life to the public performance of country music. Indeed, Dell entertained many thousands of fans for over four decades across South Texas but never, as the saying goes, “made it big.”

She was a highly motivated person who set and accomplished goals most women of her generation did not consider appropriate, much less attainable at that time. In a career lasting nearly fifty years Kathy Dell was first a local radio celebrity, then a rodeo star and a regionally popular, country music performer. She also formed and managed her own country music groups, booked all their jobs, fronted the bands, drove the band bus, sewed most of their stage costumes, played guitar and sang most of the songs they performed. Dell also held regular day jobs as well the entire time during which she was pursuing her career in music. In doing so, she advanced equal rights for women generally and breached specific cultural boundaries with a confident smile, a fine voice, and a lot of popular country music.

Kathy Dell Country Kings Bus
L to R, The Country Kings were Jim Loving(steel), Rick Faircloth(drums), Pee Wee Pittman(fiddle), Johnny Naunheim(lead guitar), Don Crockett(bass) and Kathy Dell sometime in 1973. Behind them is the 1948 General Motors custom coach, aka. “the Freight Train” that Kathy drove most of the time. This promotional photo was glued to larger posters to advertise upcoming appearances for the band.

In March 1999, my daughter Leanora and I went to Corpus Christi during Spring Break when she was a junior in high school. We started back to Austin by going first to Victoria where I lived briefly about 1957/'58 when my step father was stationed at Foster Air Force Base there. I wanted to see the old air base which was closed by 1960 and converted to the city's airport so we took a look and hit the road. From Victoria we went to Cuero stopping there for lunch on a gorgeous spring day. While wandering around the small downtown we happened into the smallish Cuero Music Company where we met the amiable proprietress, a middle aged woman named Katherine Doehl. As a few customers came in the went out with new guitar strings, some old sheet music or a semi fresh CD, etc., I chatted with the Kathy Dell about Cuero not knowing who she was other than the owner of the Cuero Music Co. Then I spotted the old foto of a girl on a bull so asked her about it and quickly learned that it was her about 1954 during her several year long rodeo career which she began as a teenager. Close by on the same wall was another foto. That one showed a band lined up next to a large travel coach and my enquiry led to a short version of Kathy's music career as a rodeo star then country band leader and singer beginning at age sixteen and lasting over forty years. She had a lunch date so was moving us toward the door but not before handing me an autographed copy of the bus foto and an old but clean copy of a 45 rpm record she had cut many years earlier. Leanora and I returned to Austin that afternoon and had soon forgotten about spring break as other adventures came along bringing us up to now.

Kathy Dell and daughter Leanora Brown,
March 20th, 1999 Kathy Dell and Leanora Brown, the author’s daughter, stood outside the rear entrance to the Cuero Music Company. Miss Brown holds a gift from Kathy, an autographed copy of the Cherokee Records 45 rpm that was released in Jan. 1975.

Two years ago I met Dr. Gary Hartman a history professor at Texas State University, editor of the Journal of Texas Music History and a heck of a good Texas country music singer and guitar picker. Gary also fronts an Austin band named the Texas Swing Pioneers and they are damned good at recreating the old time music made famous by Milton Brown, Bob Wills, Adolph Hofner and so on. Being aware of his reputation as a very knowledgeable authority on the country music of our beloved state, I asked Dr. Hartman if he had ever heard of Miss Kathy Dell. He had not so after hearing my brief synopsis of her life as I recalled it, Gary suggested that I write it up for the Journal which he edits. Not finding a current telephone listing for Kathy Dell or the Cuero Music Company, I emailed the Cuero newspaper and they agreed to run a small notice inviting anyone who knew of Katherine Doehl to contact me. A cousin called me to say that Katie, as the family still call her, was in a nursing home following a stroke and that they would be glad to help me with information and fotos for an article. Two road trips, several interviews and some digging at the Cuero Public Library resulted in an article detailing the life and times of Kathy Dell which was eventually submitted to the JTMH and has now seen publication. I hope that the excerpt above will whet some appetites for some of y'all who might want to learn more about a very fascinating Texas woman and pioneer music personality.

For the complete Kathy Dell story please contact professor Gary Hartman at the Center For Texas Music History at Texas State University, San Marcos for a copy of the Journal with Kathy on the cover. http://www.txstate.edu/ctmh/1-journal.htm

© Mel Brown
"They shoe horses, don't they?" February 18, 2008 Column
Please send comments to: melbjr@earthlink.net
Photos copyright Dorothy Alsbrook

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