Kathy Dell, bandleader, musician, and rodeo star, was born Katherine Mae Doehl on July 9, 1932, in Cuero, Texas. She was the daughter of Walter and Willie Mae Doehl. Her father was a drummer in a municipal band in Cuero. Katherine Mae Doehl, called “Katie” as a teenager, later changing her name to Kathy Dell, was a popular fixture on rodeo and dance hall circuits in the crossroads region of South Texas.
Dell’s early influences were cowboy songs she heard on area radio broadcasts and in Hollywood Western movies, as well as records of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family that she played on the family Victrola. Among her favorite tunes was Patsy Montana’s celebrated song, “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” She taught herself to play guitar, and in 1949 when Dell was just a senior in high school, she began broadcasting her own show on Cuero’s first commercial radio station, KCFH.
“The Sweet Sixteen Singing Sweetheart of KCFH” performed a fifteen-minute broadcast before attending class at Cuero High School, where she also played French horn and trumpet in the school band. Dell adopted Montana’s “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” as her unofficial anthem, a song she continued to perform throughout her career. After graduating high school, she continued her Liberty Jamboree program on KCFH, and she took a job as a taxi driver. In 1950 she made her television debut on Red River Dave McEnery’s live music program on WOAI in San Antonio. Dell also joined the All Girls Pro-Rodeo Circuit, where she trick-roped and rode bulls and broncos and toured across the Southwest United States. In 1952 she won second place in the All Girls Bull Riding Championship in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Dell’s good friend and mentor Lucyle Cowey was a fellow Cuero resident, rodeo champion, and Wild West show star, and the two performed at shows and rodeos at area ranches. Dell became a local radio celebrity, yodeling and singing western hits on radio programs and performing in front of larger audiences as a guest singer with area bands. She sang with the Austin-based Colorado River Boys and then with the honky-tonk group the Southernaires in Cuero.
In 1956 Dell formed her first band, the Square D Ranch Hands, which soon included guitar player and lifelong close friend Johnny Naunheim. Other early members included fiddler Ed Kinney, bassist Ellis Fellers, and Vernon Whitehead on steel guitar. The Square D Ranch Hands performed at dance halls and events throughout the region, with Dell sometimes enjoying the opportunity to share the stage with high-profile artists, among them Bob Wills and Willie Nelson.
In 1969 Dell and Naunheim formed a new group known as Kathy Dell with the Country Kings. Dell was considered a pioneer, one of few women at the time who “formed and managed her own country music groups, booked all their jobs, fronted the bands, drove the tour bus, sewed most of the stage costumes, played guitar, and sang the majority of the band’s songs.” Throughout her performance career, she also worked as manager of the Cuero Music Company, as well as manager of a local western store. In 1969 Dell and Haunheim released a single on Brazos Records, a small San Antonio label. The 45 rpm featured a country standard, “You’ve Still Got a Place in My Heart,” and a composition by Naunheim called “Footprints on the Moon.” In late 1974 she recorded with the Cherokee Cowboys at a studio in Beeville. The resulting single, “It’s Over,” got regional airplay and was a popular request at dances.
In 1976 Dell started a new band, Rawhide, and began to feature Tejano songs and influences in her performances in addition to her set of favorite country and rock hits. With their diverse and dance-friendly material, Rawhide gained in popularity and performed at events and parties throughout the Mexican-American community.
With a career spanning four decades, Kathy Dell performed throughout South Texas until the mid-1990s. A career highlight was Dell’s performance of “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” for Patsy Montana during Montana’s induction into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum in 1987. Dell suffered, however, a devastating loss during the flood of October 1998 with the destruction of her audio equipment, songbooks, costumes, and rodeo gear. A handful of items, including a photo album, some concert and rodeo memorabilia, and her first Sears Silvertone guitar, were stored in the Cuero Music Company and were saved. She played her last concert in June 2000 at the Pilgrim Country Opry in Gonzales.
Dell never married. She was a member of Saint Michael’s Catholic Church in Cuero. A 2004 rodeo photography exhibit at the Chisholm Trail Heritage Museum in Cuero recognized Dell for her many accomplishments. In 2005 she suffered a series of debilitating strokes and spent the remainder of her days at a nursing care facility in her hometown of Cuero, where she died on October 29, 2007.