'80s Ladies

K.T. Oslin reflects on her trailblazing time in country music spotlight

K.T. Oslin reflects on trailblazing time in country music spotlight

K.T. Oslin
K.T. Oslin is being inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters' Hall of Fame. Courtesy photo

If you are thinking about giving up your dreams — whatever they may be — K.T. Oslin would tell you not to. "There's always hope, honey," she says. "You ain't dead until you're dead! You just never know what tomorrow is gonna bring." And she would know.

In her mid-40s she became one of the biggest sensations in country music. What started as dabbling in songwriting quickly catapulted her into the limelight to the tune of four No. 1 songs ("Do Ya," "I’ll Always Come Back," "Hold Me," "Come Next Monday"), three Academy of Country Music Awards, two Country Music Association Awards and three Grammys. 

 "I love to write sad songs, and I love to sing them," Oslin says. "I love to make people all rumpled up and start feeling something."

Oslin, who grew up in Texas, is now 72 and blissfully retired. Though she's lived in Nashville for years, she still considers Texas home and returns to Austin to be inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters' Hall of Fame on June 22, along with Buck Owens and Waylon Jennings. She will also give a rare live performance.

"It's not too shabby, is it?" she jokes. "When they told me that I had been voted in ... I was just stunned as I always was when I won anything. I couldn't believe it, but I'll be happy to accept!"

Many called Oslin a trailblazer as she made her mark on the music business back in the late '80s, with her sassy attitude, unique style and vivid storytelling. "Every song is a result of great timing," she says. "It came along with either the right singer or the right guitar part, or something clicked and made it a happenin' thing.

"And that's kind of what happened to me. I was stunned. I didn't know what was going on."

She went from an unknown to a household name virtually overnight, as her first big hit, "80's Ladies," became an anthem of sorts. It was a top 10 single and won her a Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

"'80's Ladies' was just a complete surprise to me. I always thought it was a really good song, but I thought it was a concert piece. ... I never expected it to be a single record. I never expected it to have the impact it did."

Born in Arkansas, Oslin moved to Texas as a young girl and grew up in Houston. After studying drama at a junior college, she headed to New York City where she made a living on Broadway and as a jingle singer, writing songs to kill time between commercial auditions.

 "That's the fun part of this business: seeing how you enter people's lives."

"I had read a line on a bathroom wall and said, 'Well, if that's not a country song, there's never been one.' And it was, 'I ain't never gonna love nobody but Cornell Crawford.' And that started the ball rolling."

In 1987, with 10 songs under her belt (including "Cornell Crawford"), she was signed to RCA, where she wrote all of her own material.

"The ideas just came in. I didn't pre-plan much. I didn't sit and think, 'I'm gonna write a song about my dishwasher' or whatever. But I love to write sad songs, and I love to sing them. ... I love to make people all rumpled up and start feeling something."

Her music resonated especially well with women, but she still had plenty of male fans. "A fella wrote me and said when he was in the Boy Scouts, his troop leader was a major K.T. Oslin fan. When they'd go on camping trips, he'd bring a boom box and my tapes and nobody else's.

"So they'd listen to K.T. Oslin around the campfire. ... Hearing about these little 8-year-old boys being forced to listen to K.T. Oslin just cracked me up!"

Although she wasn't a big fan of the business end of music, she loved her time onstage each night interacting with her fans. "That's the fun part of this business: seeing how you enter people's lives."

In her 50s, health issues contributed to Oslin's eventually walking away from her music career. "Between all those things and personal things and life in general, it just got to be where the music end of it, the business end of it, was not fun. And if it's not fun, oh honey, you better run!

"I was happy to just sit back and have all the pressure off. That's a lovely place to be. Especially when everything is paid for!"

Now, she doesn't sing much, and her writing days are behind her. "I don't write at all. ... It may come back to me some day; it may not. It came upon me out of the blue in the first place, and it kind of went away that way too. But I don't feel frustrated by it."