K.T. Oslin Defied Odds & Ageism as the Queen of “80’s Ladies” (RIP)

Music is a young person’s game. We all know that. And it’s reinforced every time you look at the charts, or turn on the radio, or watch a big awards show. It’s even harder for women in an ageist industry with image requirements and expectations unduly burdening them to make any sort of run at stardom later in life. But K.T. Oslin bucked all of that in her career. She defied many of the odds to leave her mark of launching an admirable career, and a country music anthem for many of a generation.

K.T. Oslin’s country music career was mostly an accident. Though she sang with Guy Clark in a folk trio in Houston where she grew up in the 60’s, stage acting turned out to be her initial calling, and she moved to New York to perform in prominent theater productions such as Hello Dolly and West Side Story. Oslin appeared in television commercials and smaller productions as well, with acting remaining her principle concern.

But during the slower moments of her career, she started penning songs, and that’s when this Manhattan-based theater personality accidentally fell head first into a full-blown country music career in her 40’s. Sending her compositions to rights publisher SESAC, they saw K.T. Oslin’s work fitting much more in a country vein than pop or rock. Soon they were shopping them around Nashville, and K.T. became one of the hottest songwriting commodities around.

Even as her own country singles released on Elecktra Records in the early 80’s failed garner much interest, others were minting hits with her songs. Blame it on the ageism that was even prevalent in country music at that time. But Gail Davies had a hit with the K.T.-written “Round the Clock Lovin’” in 1982, and Sissy Spacek had a hit with “Lonely But Only For You” after the notoriety she received starring in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter.

But in 1987, Oslin switched labels to RCA, and instead of falling victim with the inherent ageism in the industry, K.T. Oslin confronted it, and found the greatest success of her career, in country music or otherwise. Her first single “Wall of Tears” just barely cracked into the Top 40, but it got the attention of everyone. Then came the song “80’s Ladies,” which spoke very specifically to growing up, and growing old. And at 45-years-old, K.T. Oslin had a major hit.

We were the girls of the 50’s.
Stoned rock and rollers in the 60’s.
And more than our names got changed
As the 70’s slipped on by.
Now we’re 80’s ladies.
There ain’t been much these ladies ain’t tried.

The song spoke to women both young and old, and became an anthem. It also made K.T. the first ever middle-aged woman to launch a country career in history. Oslin’s unlikely story made her easy to root for, as did her brash humor and personality that fit the role perfectly. Soon she was one of the most popular performers in country music. She became the 1988 CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, and “80’s Ladies” became Song of the Year.

“80’s Ladies” was her signature, but subsequent songs would become bigger hits. Both “Do Ya” and “I’ll Always Come Back” from the 1987 album 80’s Ladies hit #1, while the album itself soon went Platinum. Oslin also had a #1 with “Hold Me” in 1988, and another with “Come Next Monday,” in early 1990. In many respects, K.T. Oslin helped define late 80’s country music, at least for women, though her career sharply declined shorty afterwards. As the next decade ensued, the 80’s influence of K.T. Oslin was left behind.

In retrospect though, the contributions of K.T. Oslin have withstood the test of time better than most. Smart songwriting and confident delivery combined with timeless themes have kept K.T.’s music current, as many of today’s country listeners mine the 80’s looking for more heart than today’s “country” offerings and find it in her songs, despite the time stamp.

It was announced Monday morning (12-21) that K.T. Oslin has passed away at the age of 78. The Crossett, Arkansas native had been suffering from Parkinson’s since 2016, and had recently been in a nursing home. She had also been recently diagnosed with COVID-19, though that has not been announced as the cause of death at this time.

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