Anybody who listened to country music in the late 1980s remembers K.T. Oslin, the wry singer-songwriter who could make you laugh one minute and weep the next. She won multiple accolades for her 1987 signature hit, “80’s Ladies,” including an ACM award (video of the year), a CMA award (song of the year) and a Grammy (best female country vocal performance). Even more remarkable, Oslin established her career with “80’s Ladies” when she was 45 years old.
Now recovered from serious health issues in the early 1990s, including severe depression and a quadruple bypass surgery, Oslin is happily retired in Nashville and rarely performs live. However, she’s confirmed for a show at Belmont University in Nashville on Thursday (Dec. 8) at a fundraiser for Toys for Tots because she’s a longtime fan of the organization. She’ll play with fellow singer-songwriters Mike Reid (“Walk on Faith”), Lisa Carver and Shane McAnally.
Just before heading out the door to buy a new outfit for Thursday’s show, Oslin called in to CMT.com to chat about her remarkable career, her enduring hit and her loyal fans.
CMT: You rarely perform anymore. At what point did you decide to retire from the road?
Oslin: Oh, it was a long time ago. I don’t know — ’92? ’93?
Was that a conscious decision?
Yep! (laughs) I asked my people, “Do I have enough money to quit right now?” and they said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, then, I quit!”
So, what is a typical day for you now?
Anything I want to do. I lead a terribly indulgent life. (laughs) Why not?
Are you writing songs anymore?
Occasionally I write. Not very often. But occasionally I do. I try to sit down and play every now and then so I don’t totally lose my chops. I don’t do much writing.
I understand you did a one-woman show last year.
I did. It was an idea I had for a one-woman show. I got a draft on it, but I didn’t want to spend any more time on it until I saw whether I had something or not. So I took a chance and did a free show to learn what works and what doesn’t work. And I did it. And then I decided, “What, am I crazy?!” (laughs) “What am I getting back into this for?! And alone, too!” (laughs) So I sort of dropped it. But you never know. I might go back to it.
You once said that you didn’t expect “80’s Ladies” to become a signature hit. How did that happen?
You know, I’m not sure. It took me about a year to write it. I wrote it a little piece at a time. It was an idea I had. I thought it would be a song that would be great to do live in concert. I thought it was one of those show pieces. I never dreamed or thought it would be a single. It got good response from the initial foray, so we put it out as a single. It obviously struck a nerve.
When that song hit, was it like a whirlwind?
Yeah, kind of, because it started winning all sorts of awards. It was ridiculous. It was like, “What?! What is going on here?!”
I watched a clip of you accepting a CMA Award, and I could see that you were stunned.
Oh, I was totally stunned. I expected to be egged at any moment. But, you know, it’s a great song, even if I say so myself. It’s a nice song. People ask me all the time, “Have you written another ’80’s Ladies’?” And I say, “No, and neither has anybody else.”
Did that success give you free reign to do what you wanted to do in your career?
Well, you know, I was naïve enough to think I had free reign. My boss at RCA totally gave me free reign. He never told me, “No, you have to do this, you have to do that.” … He just let me run with it, and that worked for me. It was a real treat. Nobody wants to be told what to do — and I wasn’t. I got to play it like I saw it.
I always appreciated the narrative elements to your songs and especially your videos. Was it important for you to be a storyteller?
Yeah, I like to write stories rather than just “I love you and I’m going to love you forever.” I want to know, “Why? Why are you going to love me forever?” (laughs) They’re more fun to perform. There are lots of really nice songs that are hit records at radio, but when they’re strung together, they don’t make a very interesting show. That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it. So I try to write songs about people and real situations and to make them dramatic because it keeps it interesting for me.
People talk about country music from the 1970s a lot, and the 1990s a lot. But do you feel like the 1980s get overlooked when people talk about the best years in country music?
Yeah, absolutely I do! In the ’80s, I was still living in New York, and we finally got a country music station. We didn’t have one. I listened to the music, and I really liked it. I was very impressed. It wasn’t just, “Baw dee doo doo doo.” There was some really good music in the ’80s — Alabama, George Strait, Don Williams. There were a lot of really good singers and some really good modern arrangements and good-sounding records. They were starting to spend more money on them, and it was paying off.
Who were some of the people you encountered along the way who were class acts?
Oh, I’m going to say all of them because I don’t want to get myself into any trouble. (laughs) I love everybody. Everybody’s wonderful. Love them, love them, love them! (laughs) Yeah, I learned my lesson about that. When you’re one of the entertainers, you’re absolutely entitled to have an opinion, but, boy, you get beat up if you express it. If you criticize, it sounds like sour grapes, and if you praise someone, then [you hear], “Why didn’t you praise me?” But I enjoyed everybody I was an opening act for. They treated me very well, and I enjoyed that. I think anybody that gets to a certain level deserves respect — just for living and making it out alive.
Just keeping up, it’s hard to imagine …
Yeah, absolutely, it’s difficult. We make it look easy, but it’s anything but. It’s very personal, and you have to have a thick skin.
Have you always had a thick skin?
No, I’m not thick-skinned at all. I just put on another face and became another person. I think you have to be sensitive, and you have to be in touch with emotions, to be a writer. Naturally, if someone says, “This stinks,” you’re going to be crushed by it. But the show biz part of it is that you never let them see you sweat. You never let them see you cry. You just move on and keep going. You have to understand that not everybody is going to like what you do. You can’t please everybody. And you’re crazy if you try.
Do you miss the days of playing for an audience and getting on the tour bus?
In a way, I do. I miss the performing of it, but then I think of all the stuff that goes behind it and in front of it. That’s the stuff I didn’t like. It’s a toss-up. There’s always a price to pay for the fun. It is a hardcore business.
Do you have a message that you’d like to send out to your fans who still love your music?
It’s nice that anybody remembers because it’s been a long, long time. … They know I love them, and I read some of their stories on the Internet and laugh. I just wanted to say hello and happy holidays and “Be good!”
I think your music will go down in history. How do you want to be remembered by your fans?
Well, thank you! I’d like to be remembered as someone who stuck to their guns and did it the way they thought. I tried to do my very best every time out of the chute. And … that’s it!