Iconic Singer-Songwriter K.T. Oslin Passes
December 21, 2020 – by Robert K Oermann
Triple Grammy-winner K.T. Oslin, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, has died at age 78.
She made music history by becoming the first middle-aged woman to rise to stardom in Nashville. Oslin was 45 years old when she scored a smash hit with the female anthem “80’s Ladies” in 1987. The song made her the first female songwriter in history to win the CMA’s Song of the Year prize. She was the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1988.
During her career, she also earned four Academy of Country Music honors, as well as her three Grammys. In 2014, she was inducted into the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame. She was voted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018.
Oslin had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease in recent years and had been living in an assisted-living facility since 2016. Last week, she was diagnosed with COVID-19, but it is unclear whether this contributed to her death on Monday morning (Dec. 21).
She was born Kay Toinette Oslin in Crossett, Arkansas on May 15, 1942. She grew up in Houston, Texas. Oslin sang folk music in a trio with Guy Clark (1941-2016) as a young adult in her hometown.
Both made their disc debuts on the local 1964 Jester Records compilation LP, Look, It’s Us! Oslin and duet partner Frank Davis subsequently recorded an unreleased album in Los Angeles.
After starring with Rudy Vallee in an equity production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, she auditioned for the road company of the musical Hello Dolly! in 1966. She toured with its star Carol Channing until the show returned to New York, and remained with the musical on Broadway when it starred Betty Grable.
Settling in Manhattan, Oslin subsequently appeared in Promises, Promises, in the Lincoln Center revival of West Side Story, and in lesser-known musicals such as the Vincent Price vehicle Darling of the Day. Oslin also performed in TV commercials for cleaning products, denture adhesives, soft drinks and other products.
During the long stretches between theatrical auditions, Oslin began writing songs in her New York apartment. SESAC executive C. Dianne Petty (1946-2007) thought they sounded “country” and began shopping them around Nashville. Oslin began making trips to Music City, performing showcases and singing backup on old friend Guy Clark’s 1978 self-titled LP.
Oslin was signed by Elektra Records, which issued “”Clean Your Own Tables” and “Younger Men” as “Kay T. Oslin” country singles in 1981-82. Neither made any waves. She remained in New York and worked as an extra in Bruce Springsteen’s 1985 video of “Glory Days,” in addition to singing ad jingles.
Meanwhile back in Nashville, her songs began attracting attention. They were successfully recorded by Gail Davies (“Round the Clock Lovin,’” 1982), Sissy Spacek (“Lonely But Only For You,” 1983), Dottie West (“Where Is a Woman to Go,” 1984), Judy Rodman (“Come Next Monday, 1985) and The Judds (“Old Pictures,” 1987).
K.T. Oslin was signed by RCA Records, which issued “Wall of Tears” as her debut single for the label in 1987. It became her first top-40 hit. “80’s Ladies” made her a star later that year. Fans were charmed by her down-home banter, brassy sense of humor, witty personality and breezy moxie. Millions of women identified with her unlikely rise to fame.
She followed “80’s Ladies” with back-to-back No. 1 records, “Do Ya” and “I’ll Always Come Back” in 1988. Her third No. 1 hit was 1989’s “Hold Me,” which won two Grammy Awards. She also hit No. 1 as the guest vocalist on Alabama’s 1988 hit “Face to Face.”
“Hey Bobby” and “This Woman” continued her top-10 streak in 1989. In 1990, her singles “Didn’t Expect It To Go Down This Way” and “Two Hearts” were followed by her fifth chart topper, “Come Next Monday.” This was accompanied by a hilarious, “Bride-of-Frankenstein” music video. Her other six videos showcased her dramatic abilities, as well as her comedic timing.
Meanwhile, Oslin’s songs continued to be recorded by other stars. Among them were Dan Seals (“Fool Me Once,” 1988), Anne Murray (“Who But You,” 1989), Trudy Lynn (“Still On My Mind,” 1991), The Forester Sisters (“Wanda,” 1992), Dorothy Moore (“Do Ya,” 1992), Aimee Comeaux (“Moving Out,” 1994) and Dusty Springfield (“Where Is a Woman to Go,” 1995). This activity has continued into recent years with Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan recording a duo version of “Do Ya” in 2017.
K.T. Oslin’s own recordings became million-sellers. Her 80’s Ladies and This Woman albums earned Gold records in 1988 and became Platinum sellers the following year. In 1991, Love In a Small Town won a Gold record award, as did a compilation of her videos.
Her stage background served her well as she easily made the transition to television acting. Oslin guest-starred on such TV series as Paradise and Evening Shade. She had a prominent role in the made-for-TV movie Poisoned by Love opposite Harry Hamlin. She portrayed a nightclub owner in the 1993 feature film The Thing Called Love, directed by Peter Bogdanovich as Sandra Bullock’s first starring vehicle.
Carol Burnette invited K.T. Oslin to co-star on her NBC variety series Carol & Company. Oslin also became a huge favorite on the talk shows of Johnny Carson, Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers, Ralph Emery, Oprah Winfrey and more. She was in the spotlight on ABC’s 20/20 and on her own TNN special USO Celebrity Tour.
She was sidelined by quadruple coronary bypass surgery in 1995. When she returned to recording, Oslin became increasingly experimental.
In 1996, she became an early mainstream country star to embrace the emerging Americana music movement. Her CD My Roots Are Showing showcased a variety of roots-music genres and was the first of her releases that she co-produced.
She performed a pops concert with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in 1999. She issued a disco single with 2000’s dance-floor mix of the Rosemary Clooney oldie “Come On-a My House.” She teamed up with Raul Malo to give a Latin tinge to some of the tracks on her 2001 collection Live Close By, Visit Often. After 2005, she made only occasional public appearances. By 2008, Oslin was focused on her painting and crafts. She sold hand-painted tableware and created tableaux of miniature furniture. She wrote and tried out a one-woman monologue-with-music autobiographical theatrical piece and appeared at benefit events from time to time.
In 2013, she celebrated the 25th anniversary of 80’s Ladies with a sold-out show at the Franklin Theater. She was also a hit at a sold-out 2015 show at The City Winery to salute the release of her final CD, titled Simply.
She retired from performing and recording after that. K.T. Oslin is survived by her aunt, Reba Byrd, in Austin, Texas, and by a small group of loving Nashville friends. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
Robert K Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.