Back in the 1980s, K.T. Oslin’s handlers didn’t need to make a marketing angle out of her trend-bucking. She stood out simply by showing up as an urbane, singing and songwriting woman of a certain age who swooped down out of New York to become a country star.
A keyboard-driven saga of women outgrowing their youthful naivety, her signature “80’s Ladies” ushered in multiple ACM, CMA and Grammy awards during her brief recording career. After collecting six more Top 10 hits, she essentially retired from performing in the 1990s.
All these years later, it’s hardly surprising that Oslin, the effortless outsider, doesn’t do all the things other legacy acts do to keep their names out there. She’s celebrating her singular career her way, with a one-off 25th anniversary show in Nashville on Friday (Nov. 15) and a rare round of interviews. We found that her smarts and sass are still fully intact.
CMT Edge: Whenever your story was told, the press dwelled on the fact that you were in your 40s when you had your breakthrough. How did your fans respond to that?
Oslin: You mean about talking about my age or my age being what it was?
I think they liked it. I always took some pride in the fact that I brought in some new listeners. It wasn’t that I was appealing so much to the hardcore country music listeners. I was bringing in people that went, “Oh, is this country? Well, I like that.” They’d come in and listen to me, and then they’d hear somebody else: “Oh, I like this, too.” Next thing you know, you have some new country listeners. I pride myself on having been able to do that.
If the fans had anything against [my age], I never heard anything. I think it was a good thing for older women to see, “Oh, you’re not dead! You can come back! You can have a viable, functioning career in whatever it is you’ve chosen after a certain age. It’s not just over.”
I mean, there’s not exactly a whole lot of [examples of that], are there?
The closest thing I can think of to your situation is what happened with Bonnie Raitt a couple of years later when she had a breakthrough moment with Nick of Time. Were you following her career?
I don’t try to fit the mold. I try to make a new mold — my mold. And if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. But I’m not going to be like somebody. That’s the kiss of death. We don’t need another Bonnie Raitt. … Bonnie does that better than any of us can do it. You just need to come up with something that’s original and new to you and that appeals to people.
I wasn’t implying that you were imitating her. Since large-scale success happened for her not long after it did for you, I wondered if she was on your radar.
Oh, I don’t know. Not to compare the two of us, but Bonnie had been around a while. Bonnie had been a name for a while, and all of a sudden, she finally got that really big record. And I hadn’t been around.
You’d been around but not making albums.
That’s right. And nobody knew who I was. I had sort of been making my living in the business, but not by being a somebody. I was quite surprised by it all. I expected to come down here [to Nashville] with my music and be told, “Well, this is really nice, but you belong in adult contemporary,” or whatever was around then. But [RCA label head] Joe Galante went ahead and jumped in the pile with me, and it worked.
You’ve described yourself as having big-city edge, even though you had small-town Southern roots. What difference do you think that made to the vantage point you expressed in your music and the way you presented yourself?
Well, it made me, shall we say, more worldly — the fact that I was born in Arkansas, but I only lived there for two weeks, and I was raised in big towns — Houston, Mobile. I went to Managua, Nicaragua. I had a much more varied background than most people who were born and raised in Doodlesville, Ohio, and then they came to Nashville. I pulled from all kinds of cultures. Certainly in New York it was “everything goes.” I think that made me just a little different.
The only time I ever realized how out-of-the-current I was, was when we were touring. Of course, this was in the Stone Age. We had no technology at all. We’d get close enough to a town where we could get some radio reception on the bus, and we’d always tune in to see what the station played. … One record would be [hardcore twang]. Then they’d play one of mine, and it was like an alien [sound] had come down. And then the second one after me would be [hardcore twang again]. It’d be back to normal.
I thought, “Oh, gosh, I’m really very odd.” But I thought that was good. I never looked at that as, “Oh, I must change and be like everybody else.”
Your first big single, “80’s Ladies,” got me thinking about that era of country music — the ‘80s. Aside from the neo-traditionalists, that seemed to be a decade when a lot of the most successful acts were more invested in sounding contemporary than trying to sound timeless or traditional.
In the ‘70s, we didn’t even have a country station in New York. So I had lost complete touch with what country music was. … When we finally got a radio station in New York and I listened to it — and Alabama being certainly one of [the big acts] — I thought, “Whoa, I really like this. This is different and new.” It had a more contemporary sound. More money was spent on [recording albums], and therefore they sounded a little better. People changed the way they played on them.
Living up there, I thought I was writing hardcore country music. (laughs) When I got down here, I realized, “You’re not even close.” But I didn’t care. “This is me. I’m not them. … This is my song. I wrote it. I’m gonna sing it.”