K.T. Oslin, country singer-songwriter best known for ’80’s Ladies,’ dies at 78
K.T. Oslin, a witty and sophisticated country star who found both critical and commercial success in the late 1980s, died Monday in suburban Nashville. She was 78.
Her death was confirmed by the Country Music Association, which didn’t state a cause, though the Nashville trade publication Music Row said Oslin had Parkinson’s disease and had been living in an assisted-living facility since 2016. Last week, Music Row added, Oslin tested positive for COVID-19.
The first female songwriter to win the CMA’s coveted song of the year award — which she took in 1988 with her hit “80’s Ladies” — Oslin made polished, lightly twangy music about women’s lives with a keen eye on the complexities of work, family and romance. In “80’s Ladies,” which helped drive her album of the same name to No. 1 on Billboard’s country chart, she tracked the intersecting paths of “three little girls from school” as they approach middle age:
We burned our bras
And we burned our dinners
And we burned our candles at both ends
And we’ve had some children
Who look just like the way we did back then
In a series of tweets on Monday, Brandy Clark described Oslin as “smart, funny, elegant, beautiful” and called her “one of my musical heroes.” Chely Wright wrote on Instagram that Oslin, who was in her mid-40s when “80’s Ladies” came out, “shattered the longstanding industry norms of who got a shot at making it in the business.”
Oslin — whose other hits included four chart-toppers in “Do Ya,” “I’ll Always Come Back,” “Hold Me” and “Come Next Monday” — sang in a breathy voice and favored plush, synth-heavy arrangements that had as much to do with the era’s adult-contemporary style as they did with country music.
Nevertheless, Nashville claimed her as one of its own: In addition to the song of the year prize, Oslin won a CMA Award for female vocalist of the year in 1988 — unseating Reba McEntire for the first time in nearly half a decade — and she received four Academy of Country Music Awards, including album of the year for 1988’s “This Woman.” She also won three Grammys.
Kay Toinette Oslin was born May 15, 1942, in Crossett, Ark., and grew up in Mobile, Ala., and Houston. After studying drama in college, she moved to New York, where she performed small roles in Broadway musicals such as “Hello, Dolly!” and “Promises, Promises” until she decided she was unlikely to make any money in musical theater, as she told the Los Angeles Times in 1991.
“I didn’t see that I could live anything other than a grimy little actor’s life,” she said. So she turned to singing jingles and acting in commercials.
In the mid-1970s she got a gig touring as a vocalist with an experimental synthesizer group. During a breakfast stop one morning in South Carolina, she glimpsed a bit of bathroom-wall graffiti — “I ain’t never gonna love nobody but Cornell Crawford” — that set her songwriter’s wheels turning. Back in New York, she and a friend, Joe Miller, conjured up the story of a woman attached despite her best interests to a man by that name.
“He’s dumb and he’s dirty and he’s way over 30,” it goes. “But that Cornell is so smooth / He knows what to do.”
Following a short-lived deal with Elektra Records that went nowhere, Oslin borrowed money from an aunt to stage a showcase in Nashville in 1986. “I can’t believe I went after a record contract that way,” she told The Times a few years later. “But my back was against the wall.”
The bet paid off when RCA signed her and put her in the studio with producer Harold Shedd, who’d worked closely with McEntire and with the popular country group Alabama. “80’s Ladies,” Oslin’s debut LP, sold more than 1 million copies, as did her follow-up, “This Woman.”
Oslin returned to acting in the mid-’90s with roles on TV’s “Evening Shade” and in director Peter Bogdanovich’s film “The Thing Called Love,” about a young singer from New York who moves to Nashville with dreams of making it big in country music. (Oslin played a nightclub owner.)
A member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Oslin went on to make records that explored a rootsy Americana sound and brassy big-band pop. In 2001 she even crashed Billboard’s club chart with a thumping dance-music take on the old Rosemary Clooney hit “Come On-A My House.” Her most recent studio album, “Simply,” came out in 2015, with a stripped-down piano-ballad rendition of “80’s Ladies.”
“You can call what I do country because of the simplicity and the story songs and some of the country instrumentation,” she told The Times in 1988, adding that she thought of her music as a blend of pop and Southern rock and R&B. “It’s a mishmash of stuff. I’m surprised people like it. They should be asking, ‘What is this stuff?’
“I ask that myself all the time.”
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