Oslin, K. T.
K. T. Oslin
Kay Toinette Oslin’s sudden success as a vocalist marks a new trend in country music. Well into her forties—and just slightly overweight—Oslin hardly projects the image of beauty and submissiveness long associated with female country singers. Her songs too follow a different path: rather than “standing by her man,” she extols the virtues of ogling young cuties and offers tributes to mature womanhood. Oslin labored in obscurity and poverty for more than twenty years, and was on the verge of quitting before her 1987 album, 80’s Ladies, went gold. Since then she has ridden the top of the country charts, both with her debut effort and with her follow-up album, This Woman.
“With K.T.’s years of struggle as their foundation,” writes a Ladies Home Journal contributor, “both 80’s Ladies and This Woman give the perspective of a mature woman of experience.” Oslin writes her own songs, drawing upon her life as she ages for themes. Life magazine correspondent Karen Emmons describes Oslin’s work as “laments for girlhood, bleats of woe and wrenching love, but the voice and the point of view are distinctive and anything but forlorn. She may be a hurtin’ woman, but she still knows how to have fun.” Emmons adds that the number one song “80’s Ladies,” Oslin’s first chart-topper, “[swept] a generation of former girls like a subliminal anthem.” If there is anything subliminal in Oslin’s songs, it is the suggestion that women can continue to have passion and promise as they enter middle age. Country music fans—both male and female—seem ready to embrace that idea.
Oslin was born in Crossit, Arkansas, to a working-class family. Her father died when she was five, and she was raised by her mother and grandmother, “two women who had to make their own way in life,” to use her words. Oslin’s mother had had show business ambitions, but she put them aside to work as a lab technician. Oslin was not so inclined. After studying drama at a small Texas college, she landed a job with the chorus of the Hello, Dolly! touring company. Eventually she found her way to New York City, where she earned chorus roles in such Broadway musicals as West Side Story and Promises, Promises. “New York spelled terror for me,” Oslin told People magazine. “I’m from the suburbs. I’m from yards. My first apartment had five locks on the door and a bathtub in the kitchen.”
Oslin soon found herself making television commercials, many of which pictured her as a happy housewife “babbling about my husband’s hemorrhoids.” Such work paid the bills—barely—but it did not satisfy Oslin’s creative longings. Surprising even herself, she began to write country songs. She had never been a great fan of country music, she told People, but when she began to write, her pieces “were very definitely
Given name Kay Toinette Oslin; born ca. 1942, in Crossit, Arkansas; daughter of a lab technician; unmarried, no children. Education: Studied drama at Lon Morris College, Jacksonville, Fla.
Worked in television commercials, doing vocals and acting, and travelled with touring company of Broadway musicals, 1967–80; signed with Elektra Records, 1980, released single “Younger Men”; signed with RCA, 1986, released first album, 80’s Ladies, 1987.
Awards: Grammy Award for best female vocal performance in country-western format, 1988.
Addresses: c/o RCA Records, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036.
country…. They just came out that way.” Oslin sold several songs to other recording artists before landing an Elektra contract in 1980. The single she released for Elektra, an early version of “Younger Men,” failed to make the charts, so she lost her contract. At that point, Oslin told People, she was almost ready to give up. “I got real fat and I got real depressed,” she said.
In a last-ditch effort to launch a career, Oslin borrowed $7000 from her aunt and mounted a showcase for Nashville’s record executives. The 1986 production was well attended, but it failed to win her a contract. Desperate, she sent a copy of 80’s Ladies to RCA Records, and within months her first album was released. Nine years after writing her first song, Oslin found herself in the limelight at last. Her debut album climbed the country charts at a record-setting pace, she won the coveted Grammy Award for country vocal performance, and she was invited to tour with Alabama. She was forty-four at the time.
Oslin has no illusions about her success. “There are a million beautiful young women singers,” she told People. “I am not one of them. Writing is the key to all of this success for me.” Oslin’s themes—once deemed too depressing by at least one Nashville executive—are indeed the strong point of her work. However, she possesses a strong, well-trained voice and a charming stage presence, both of which add to her performance. Her backup band, “Live Bait,” consists of four handsome young men. Oslin tells audiences that her band members were chosen for their looks, because “I spenda a lot of time on the bus, and I ain’t gonna look at no ugly boys.”
Oslin actually believes that her age has worked to her advantage in an industry where youth has traditionally been a prerequisite. “I let people know forty isn’t the age to pack it in,” she told the Ladies Home Journal.In People she expressed her gratitude and wonder another way. Now, when she performs, she said, “young 20-year-old boys come up to me and give me flowers. I’m talkin’ real cuties.” Asked if she regrets all the years she spent in obscurity, Kay Toinette Oslin responded, “I’d rather be starting now than ending now.”
80’s Ladies, RCA, 1987.
This Woman, RCA, 1989.
Ladies Home Journal, November 1988.
Life, October 1988.
People, June 6, 1988.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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