A COWBOY’S SWEETHEART;
the life of a famous unknown
Photos courtesy Dorothy Alsbrook
| “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.
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.
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.
|“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
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.
|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.
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.
|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.
|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