Learning to Listen Excerpt 13: Osland: K.T. Oslin's Real Live Women

When I was a teenager I watched a 20/20 segment on K.T. Oslin (b. 1942) and found her fascinating. She was about my mother’s age and I was struck by her savvy and independence. Her style (white gloves on stage), attitude (sassy), and independence (unmarried and no kids) really defied my notions of what female country singers were and what they did. More importantly the fact that she was a middle aged singer who began her career at 45 and essentially wrote her own songs and designed her own stage show seemed very unusual to me. In retrospect she was one of the first icons of feminism I was exposed to, especially in the context of art. Without ever uttering the word feminism it was clear that she embodied its principles in her songs.

Oslin is unique for entering the recording industry as a seasoned performer armed with her own compositions and a distinct sense of who she was rather than the proverbially eager ingénue typical in pop music. As a young woman Oslin left her small town Arkansas roots for New York where she worked for decades as an actress. During the early 1980s a few of her songs were covered by other singers (Gail Davies, Sissy Spacek, etc.) but her initial recordings for Elektra Records received little support from the label or radio. The label was apparently indifferent to tongue-in-cheek feminist titles like “Clean Your Own Table.” After suffering from stifling depression and inertia she re-emerged in 1987 as a recording artist for RCA.

The cover of country singer-songwriter's 1988 masterpiece  This Woman .

The cover of country singer-songwriter's 1988 masterpiece This Woman.

Over a decade after the TV story I purchased her greatest hits collection Songs from An Aging Sex Bomb. The title in and of itself reminded me of why I enjoyed her originally. It takes a unique kind of intelligence and self-awareness to project that kind of self-deprecating humor. Upon pushing play on my CD player I was instantly pulled into K.T.’s World (I call it “Osland”) one populated by women who sounded like actual women not the sentimental female archetypes contrived by so many country songwriters. Hers is a world of characters who want to be loved and respected, who are resilient when love fails, and also reflective in nature. In other words she humanizes women in her songs. Further she manages to do so without sanitizing the kaleidoscope of emotional experiences (i.e. making women cartoonishly strong or turning them into flat heroes) women inhabit.

Her debut album 80’s Ladies is a mix of newly written songs and songs other performers had popularized including “‘Round the Clock Lovin’” (Gail Davies) and “Lonely But Only for You” (Sissy Spacek). Several titles were written in the early 80s but she had to wait before she was able to interpret many of them in her own voice such as the tongue-in-cheek “Younger Men.” Thematically it has no overt agenda but it subtly depicts the fallout of the post-1960s by depicting women with humor and sobriety about the emotional landscape. Its centerpiece is the title track, a warm fable about three women whose lives mirrored the kinds of changes women experienced between the 1950s-80s. The song is deceptively simple with its “A-My name is Alice…” ending. But a close listen reveals Oslin’s gift for efficient portraiture. The chorus: “We were the girls of the 50s/stone rock and rollersin the 60s/and more than our names got changed/as the 70s slipped on by/now we’re 80s ladies”  sketches out the way so many women’s lives transitioned from the vitality of the 60s to a domestication and conservatism that came with creating families. Rather than condemning marriage or child-raising she is ultimately mapping out the ways women’s lives had been so defined by shifting expectations of women’s roles.

At the bridge a more direct awareness of feminism emerges as she reflects on how: “We’ve been educated/we got liberated/and that’s complicated matters with men/Oh we said I do and we’ve signed I don’t/And we’ve sworn a we’d never do that again” and continues noting “Oh we burned our bras/and we burned our dinners/and we’ve burned our candles at both ends.” Burning bras and words like liberated might sound like caricaturized images of feminism, but her point is less travelogue than a shorthand look at the circularity of time hence women who realized: “And we’ve got some children who look just like/The way we did back then.” She’s really detailing a sense that the struggle for vitality and finding ones place between contentment and rebellion endures across ages in the modern era. That she accomplishes this through the lens of three friends amplifies the unique role of women in this matrix of expectations.

In many ways it’s a centerpiece that holds together the album’s more compelling chronicles of women. This includes the humorous “Younger Men,” a middle-aged woman’s cheeky expression of lust and her veiled frustration toward middle-aged men’s rejection of women their own age. Even stronger is “Do Ya’” in which she asks her lover “Do you still…” get a thrill, whisper my name and like the feel of my body lying next to yours, etc. In doing so she builds toward the larger question of love, but also asserts that she is still desirable physically and viscerally, rather than settling for generic affection.  One could argue that these themes could be inverted gender-wise, however,  such an argument ignores the social pressures that have confined women from viewing themselves as complex beings who seek physical and emotional pleasure. In her world women want to be loved but also desired and there is a difference. The surrounding material includes a convincing tale of emotional connection that avoids co-dependence, a few heartbreak ballads, an upbeat love song and a reflective ballad.

The set had a great balance of craft, brains, and heart. “Do Ya,’” “80’s Ladies,” and “I’ll Always come Back” were radio hits, the album became the most successful album by a female country singer since Loretta Lynn, and the title track earned Oslin numerous awards including the Grammy for Female Country Vocal Performance , Top New Female Vocalist and Video of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards and the award for Female Vocalist and Song of the Year (“80’s Ladies”) at the Country Music Association Awards, making her the first female composer to be recognized for her composing talent.

She followed this breakthrough with This Woman, one of the most overtly female centered albums released by any singer of her generation. Like 80’s Ladies she rarely sings anything overtly feminist rather it is a subtext that binds many of her songs together in a matter-of-fact manner regarding the 80s as a decade for assertive, self-assured women. The title track is a deceptively upbeat song that sounds like the tale of a woman madly in love but it reveals a woman more interested in passionate affairs than longstanding commitments :“But I feel it’s only fair to warn you/This woman don’t stay in love for long.” In two lines she gleefully lets you know who she is and what she wants without apology. This is followed by “Money” in which her well-heeled protagonist makes it clear that “money ain’t what I need” from a man. Such independence reverberates in various other song scenarios ranging from the straightforward lust of “Round the Clock Lovin’” to the rockabilly-ish kiss-off “Truly Blue.” Three highlights include “Hold Me” a tender dialogue between a married couple about their need to reconnect emotionally and physically, most notably the lyrics “Kiss me, kiss me a little harder/Don’t kiss me like we’re married/Kiss me like we’re lovers.” Few singers integrate lust so boldly and challenge the sanctity of marriage as deftly as Oslin.  Her perspective is less a rejection of marriage than an embrace of alternatives.

 Two pillars of this include the lustful “Hello Bobby” where she propositions “Bobby” by proposing to him that she pick him up in her new 4x4, a new take on Southern Gothic with an invitation “to come out in the country and play with me.” This flirtatious vibe is reversed on the torchy “Where is a Woman To Go” (covered by Dusty Springfield in 1995) a woman’s nearly existential search for a bar to drown her sorrows alone in “a little ol’ bar ‘cross town.” More hits and more awards (Female Vocal Performance and Country Song for “Hold Me” at the Grammys, Album of the Year and Female Vocalist at the ACM Awards) followed on this fuller exploration of the proto-feminist voice 80’s Ladies previewed.

Two years later Oslin the former stage actress and performance conceptualist took the character approach further with Love in a Small Town. Though it’s not a strict concept album Oslin embraces the concept from pop/rock to thread her diverse songs together.  It’s worth noting that by 1990 Oslin was one of the freshest new voices in country music even though her sound was not strictly country. 80’s Ladies is filled with keyboard tapestries, drum beats, and electronic textures more synonymous with new wave than country. Still there was enough twang in Arkansas-born Oslin’s voice and such a strong sense of storytelling that RCA marketed her successfully as a country act even if she really leans more toward a sleek adult contemporary/soft rock sound. This Woman similarly presents songs that are more convincing as Southern-tinged pop than stereotypical country, especially the torchy “Where…” and the ringing guitars on “Hey Bobby.” In this sense she resmbles Rosanne Cash and k. d. lang as progressive artists who expanded the sound and concept of country music in the ‘80s.

On Love Oslin flexes her eclecticism on a funky, spooky cover of “Love is Strange” and a lilting neo-country swing rendition of “You Call Everybody Darling” clear proof that her inspirations span across genre and era. As a composer she kicks things off with the jaunty “Come Next Monday” a smart litany of ways her character attempts to resist love’s temptations. The thumping beat and keyboard fills defy category as does her singing, filled with purposeful trills and layered background vocal commentaries. From there you get a couple who take the day off on the lightly swinging “OO-Wee” and then classic Oslin emerged on the well-drawn character(s) song “Mary and Willi.”  She outlines the fate of those whose loneliness stems from crippling delusions about beauty and perfection. Her perspective is empathetic but firm, and remarkably effective in the vivid picture it paints. Her eye for characters extends to what she identifies as her first composition 1980’s “Cornell Crawford” a charming tale of desire replete with a sing-along refrain reminiscent of a shanty or a bar song. In terms of topicality few of the songs center women overtly, it’s implied, but the narrator of “Momma Was a Dancer,” Nelda Jean Prudie, reflects on her past to her daughter with glee. She never puts down her married life but the song’s tone makes it clear that she loved her single life: “Your Momma was a real good dancer/ ‘Fore your daddy came along/That’s all your momma lived for.” Oslin’s ability to communicate emotional truths without delving into bitterness or settling for saccharine sentimentality is a unique balancing act especially considering her ambitious emotional themes. This quality comes through on several heavier ballads including “Still on My Mind,” “Two Hearts,” and the superlative “New Way Home” a sober but hopeful ballad of resilience.

Love had fewer radio hits than its predecessors, but it was a successful and well-reviewed album and an artistic peak for Oslin. Normally three hit albums are not necessarily enough to fill a compilation, but Oslin had enough accomplishments and enough stature (as well as hits) to make Songs from an Aging Sex Bomb an essential collection of recordings. Alongside the hits was a more up-tempo version of “New Way Home” and great new songs including a commentary on new social boundaries “You Can’t Do That,” a compassionate look at overeating. “Feeding a Hungry Heart,” and a signature character song on “Get Back in the Saddle.”  The fresh remake and the three new songs reveal Oslin’s enduring relevance circa 1993.

Between 1990 and the compilation country music’s blockbuster status was amplified by bombastic male hat acts like Garth Brooks. And many of country’s most interesting women were switching to other genres including Cash, who shifted toward singer-songwriter pop, lang whose Ingénue made her a pop star, and Emmylou Harris whose final mainstream country effort was followed by the genre buster Wrecking Ball. In essence the field for progressive female artists was shrinking and few performers, outside of Mary Chapin-Carpenter, were achieving artistic freedom and hovering in the country mainstream.

1996 saw the release of the cover set My Roots Are Showing, which featured a wildly eclectic array of songs that further revealed Oslin’s panoramic mix of influences. She’s always been an excellent interpreter and the set’s mix of folk, country, and obscure pop tunes showcase her gifts amply. The beefy arrangements add perfectly muscular touches to tunes like “Down in the Valley” and “Silver Tongued and Goldplated Lies.” She and her band have a gas on “I’ll See You in Cuba” and she approaches “Pathway of Teardrops” and “Miss the Mississippi and You” with a tenderness evocative of an earlier more contemplative era. Contemporary, but not trendy, and traditional, but never nostalgic, this is another achievement in her artistic crown.

Alas its reception was mild commercially, but by this point in her career seemed less driven by a desire to be in the mainstream than a desire to explore personal interests. Shortly before its release Oslin had chest pains and eventually had a bypass operation. Five years passed before releasing her final album Live Close by, Visit Often. It’s probably her least heralded recording, yet it’s full of Oslin’s unique charms. The title track, which features a muscular neo-rhumba beat, neatly sums up her romantic philosophy. “Drivin’ Cryin’ Missin’ You” is about as good as sad songs get and “Neva Sawyer” is a hysterical tale of a wronged women right up there with the characters in “80’s Ladies,” “Cornell Crawford,” and “Mary and Willi.” She ends with a charming medley of standards and a trance-like version of “Come-on-a-My-House.” Live Close By Visit Often performed moderately well in the country charts and Oslin subsequently retired from recording. She performs live occasionally and in 2015 she released an independent collection Simply featuring a few new songs and stripped down re-recordings of her signature songs.

The ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia waves of the ‘00s did not lead to an Oslin revival and to listener unawares the keyboard laden sounds might seem a bit dated today. But Oslin is a pioneering artist who pushed country music into the ‘80s and beyond. She, more than any other female composer and performer of country music during her time, exposed the inner lives of women in her songs by detailing their newfound access to a range of affective freedoms essentially undocumented in the emotional language unique to music.