May 27, 2008
There had never anyone before in country music like K.T. Oslin when she hit the scene, and there hasn’t been anyone like her since. She instantly redefined what a woman in country music could sing and write about, and by breaking through at the age of 45, she became a voice for her whole generation of women.
Her road from her native Texas to Nashville was a long and winding one. She grew up idolizing Patsy Cline, and her attention turned to folk stars like Joan Baez as she entered junior college. She studied drama while simultaneously developing her musical craft. Before the sixties ended, she had sung in a folk trio with Guy Clark and David Jones. She even worked on an LP in Los Angeles, but the sessions were never released commercially.
While doing a stint in the national touring company of Hello Dolly!, Oslin visited New York City and fell in love with it. She joined the chorus of the Broadway show, and spent the seventies doing small parts in musical theater and recording commercial jingles. She also began focusing on her songwriting, and a friend in the business told her that her songs sounded country. So in 1978, she started shopping her songs around Music City.
She soon confronted a major obstacle: her age. She was already nearing forty when Elektra released two fiercely outspoken singles: “Clean Your Own Tables” and “Younger Men.” The latter single had Oslin noting that women peak at forty and men at nineteen, then crooning, “Here I am on the threshold of all that fun. I’m gonna try my best to cross it with a younger one.” Radio programmers refused to touch it, and when one DJ told her it was offensive to men, she asked him, “Do you play ‘Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time?” When he said yes, she responded, “Don’t you think women might find that offensive?” He hung up on her.
Despite the setbacks, Oslin began to make headway as a writer. She had songs recorded by Dottie West, Gail Davies and Judy Rodman. She dropped forty pounds, borrowed money from her aunt to stage a showcase on Music Row, and blew away Joe Galante, president of RCA Records. After having lunch with her, he signed her to a deal. Her debut album, 80′s Ladies, almost wasn’t released. The label sent “Wall of Tears”, the only song on the album not written by Oslin, to radio. It tanked.
But then they released the title cut, and it touched a nerve with women of Oslin’s generation. Though the single just dented the top ten, the album was a smash, reaching the top of the charts. It started a string of hits that would make her the toast of the town, not to mention the oldest breakthrough artist in country music history.
“80′s Ladies” won Oslin the Best Female Country Vocal Performance Grammy in 1988, along with being named the Video of the Year at the ACM’s, where Oslin also won Top New Female Vocalist. But the big story was her showing at the 1988 CMA Awards. She went in with five nominations, including two for Song of the Year; “Do Ya’” was cited along with “80′s Ladies.” Before that category was announced, Oslin had already been the surprise winner of Female Vocalist, ending Reba McEntire’s four-year reign.
When “80′s Ladies” won Song of the Year, Oslin became the first female songwriter in history to win. She noted in her acceptance speech that the award meant more to her than the Vocalist trophy, because it meant they thought she had “something up here”, as she pointed to her brain.
Oslin’s work brought her wide acclaim over the next two years. Her debut album produced #1 hits in “Do Ya’” and “I’ll Always Come Back.” It went platinum, as did her next set, This Woman. It featured “Hold Me”, a stunningly unconventional song that begins with two spoken verses detailing both perspectives of a husband and wife who planned on leaving in the morning, but went back home to each other instead. In the chorus, they both pleaded “don’t kiss me like we’re married. Kiss me like we’re lovers.” The #1 hit won K.T. two Grammys, Best Female Country Vocal Performance and Best Country Song. At the 1989 ACM’s, This Woman was named Album of the Year and Oslin the Top Female Vocalist.
Oslin scored big hits with “Hey Bobby” and “This Woman,” pushing her second disc to platinum sales. Her third album, Love in a Small Town, was released in 1990. The gold-selling release was anchored by the No. 1 hit “Come Next Monday”, which featured an eye-popping video based on the Bride of Frankenstein. Oslin was quick to show her sense of humor, but she also was ruthlessly honest in her writing. The protagonist of “Didn’t Expect it To Go Down This Way” wryly noted that she was “overworked and overweight,” while the story song “Mary & Willie” blamed the titular characters for their need for perfection leading to their loneliness.
By the end of 1990, Oslin was drained from touring and later pointed to menopause as being the main reason she wanted to slow down. She resurfaced in 1993 with a hits collection irreverently titled Songs From an Aging Sex Bomb. It didn’t produce a new hit for her, but it sold well anyway. She had to take time off again after a health scare resulted in open heart surgery. When she came back in 1996 with her covers album My Roots Are Showing…, she proudly posed in an open jacket that left her surgery scar clearly visible.
Oslin waited another five years before releasing Live Close By, Visit Often, produced by Raul Malo of the Mavericks. The title track found Oslin seeking sex without commitment, singing “I’m not looking for a husband…I need a friend. I want a lover. I have to be alone occasionally.” Her cover of the standard “Come On-A My House” was a surprise dance hit. In recent years, Oslin has lived quietly in Nashville, staying away from the road and limiting her public appearances. One can only hope that she will resurface again, bringing a senior perspective to the increasingly youth-dominated country music scene.
- “80′s Ladies”, 1987
- “Do Ya”, 1987
- “I’ll Always Come Back”, 1988
- “Hold Me”, 1988
- “Come Next Monday”, 1990
- 80′s Ladies, 1987
- This Woman, 1988
- Love in a Small Town, 1990
- My Roots are Showing…, 1996
- ACM Top New Female Vocalist, 1988
- ACM Video of the Year (“80′s Ladies”), 1988
- ACM Album of the Year (This Woman), 1989
- ACM Female Vocalist, 1989
- CMA Female Vocalist, 1988
- CMA Song of the Year (“80′s Ladies”), 1988
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“80′s Ladies”), 1988
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“Hold Me”), 1989
- Grammy: Best Country Song (“Hold Me”), 1989