Even during an era when Rosanne Cash scored several #1s, K.T. Oslin stood out for her crisp stories about women reluctant to call themselves feminists but want explanations for feeling unpretty, being ignored by husbands, and the isolation of an empty house. With a sympathetic label the Oslin of 2020 might’ve recorded so-called Americana, not country. Maybe. Hits like “Do Ya'” and “This Woman” needed the keyboard chimes and icepick-sharp guitar lines common to late eighties productions; the plushness matched Oslin’s predilection for the florid gesture. No doubt her struggles with depression gave her additional insight into the women she created with such an exacting eye.
But however much the glassy surfaces on This Woman and 80s Ladies reflect the anxieties of grown folks learning how expectations don’t predict consequences, Oslin did not wallow. She wasn’t above growling on “This Woman” or hooting on the glorious “Younger Men.” The latter opens with “”Women peak at forty, and men at nineteen/I remember laughing my head off when I read that in a magazine” over a slithery rhythm and doesn’t quit, peaking with the promise, “Younger men are starting to catch my eye.” And it has a spoken-word section that Shania Twain must’ve known about before recording “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” Go, girl!
In a 2013 interview with Jewly Hight, she admitted:
It’s funny. I decided to do some outside material once for an album. I started getting songs pitched to me. And I would get cardboard boxes filled with cassette tapes. Every one of them started out with crying. I said, “Is this all we [women] do? Cry?” And I thought, “Oh, this is really, really boring.” But as it got younger, you know, it’s about the cute boys. And the girls, if they’re not writers, they’re at the mercy of the guys that do. And they think you sit around crying all day.
This is a singer-songwriter who titled an album My Roots are Showing.
Although four singles during her 1987-1990 heyday topped the country chart, the one that didn’t will remain her anthem and now her epitaph. To write and sing an effective anthem requires talent enough to suppress the schmaltz; to write and sing a poignant and funny anthem adduces the singularity of Oslin’s “80s Ladies,” up there alongside Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man), Tammy Wynette’s “Run, Woman, Run,” and Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache” — songs that, unafraid of being a little cruel, doubled as advice to and conversations between women. Over pedal steel and a rolling piano line, Oslin chronicles the development of three women who survived three decades of tumult; those expectations changed to consequences mighty quick, summed up by the perfect line “We burned our bras like we burned our dinners.” She doesn’t ask “What happened?” so much as “Where are we headed?” If the tinkling non-entities on her studio albums bore you — I’d argue the filler isn’t worse than what you’d find on a, say, Clint Black album — then Greatest Hits: Songs from an Aging Sex Bomb (1993) will serve as prime one-stop shopping. Her warm unaffected screen presence in the “80s Ladies” video might’ve persuaded Peter Bogdanovich to cast her as the club owner/talent scout in the misbegotten The Thing Called Love (1993), River Phoenix’s last film.
Diagnosed with Parkinson’s years ago, Oslin, alas, may have succumbed to the year’s deadliest killer. COVID, as the grieving families of Adam Schlesinger, John Prine, and Harold Budd know, demonstrated it cares little about genre distinctions. Listeners who with some merit mourn contemporary Nashville’s reluctance to promote female artists can look to K.T. Oslin’s too brief ascendancy — times were rough for women in 1989 too, even with Dolly Parton’s White Limozeen proving a smash. Oslin didn’t deal with improbabilities; her talent was to regard life as it was. Flexible but not up to cutting corners, manipulating her sexuality with a politician’s eye for whom it matters in a crowd, she should’ve been a model for songwriters who don’t confuse “adult” with “staid.”