KT Oslin: The Cream Interview

In 2013, when the really interesting 20- and 30-something female performers are shut out of mainstream country radio playlists — even though several of them have us music critics wrapped around their smart (and smart-assed) little fingers — K.T. Oslin’s career saga is bound to sound made-up.

By popular music standards, Oslin was right around the age at which a female act would be advised to give up on chasing hits and try to hang on as a legacy act — mid-40 — when she had her first commercial country breakthrough. There she was, a Southern-born singer with a couple decades of B-level Broadway and television ad work under her belt — and the clear, resonant vocal delivery to show for it — being given a second chance by a major country label. And the single that put her on the map was “‘80s Ladies,” a storytelling ballad about three resilient, experienced, 40-something women, accompanied by a music video best described as Designing Women-meets-The Wonder Years.

Oslin flies way below the radar these days, and rarely gives interviews. But a pair of upcoming performances (tonight’s Planned Parenthood benefit at the Rutledge with Gretchen Peters and a 25th anniversary show at the Franklin Theatre Nov. 15 with a band led by keyboardist Jimmy Nichols) gave us an excuse to get her on the phone and talk about how she’s exercised a woman’s right to choose in her life and career. See our interview after the jump.

You stopped touring, what? Twenty years ago?

Yeah. About 20 years ago, yeah.

It’s rare that anyone gets the chance to see you perform live, much less two opportunities in one month.

How did that happen? I’m back in the fray again.

You tell me. What made a Planned Parenthood benefit with Gretchen Peters and a 25th Anniversary show at the Franklin Theatre worth doing?

A friend of mine who’s good friends with Gretchen said, “Hey, let’s have dinner with them. You’d like to meet her.” I had never met her. So we had dinner, and we hit it off. A couple of days later, Gretchen asked me if I would do this benefit with her. She’s apparently done it a few years in a row. And I said, “Heck yeah! I’m all for Planned Parenthood.”

It was one of those things where you say, “Yes! Of course!” Then you hang up and you go, “What have I done? I don’t do this.” And we had been working on this show out at the Franklin Theatre, working on seeing if it was a place that I could do something, and it worked out just about the same time. So it wasn’t planned. It was just the fates.

You pick and choose your performance. I think there was a Toys for Tots benefit maybe a couple years ago, and Farm Aid way, way back. But definitely few and far between.

Yeah, like, years in between.

I get the sense that you stepped out of the spotlight on your own terms, once you were able to. It’s pretty rare that I talk with a performer who’s made that sort of move. How’d you process through that decision?

Well, the reason for stopping was primarily health reasons back then. I just wasn’t feeling right. I knew that I didn’t feel right, and I wasn’t enjoying things. And also the business was changing greatly. It was changing rapidly and getting younger, and pretty soon you had to be right out of the crib in order to be on the radio. And I thought, “Well, that’s not me.”

But it was mostly I just couldn’t get the energy up to do this. I felt like I was running on fumes. So I went right to my people and said, “Can I quit today and live the way I do, just back away?” And they said, “Yes.” And I said, “Then I’ll do that.”

I didn’t think I would come back and do anything. I thought, “Well that’s it.” I’m not one to say I’m gonna retire and then do a two-year tour. But occasionally when little things come along that intrigue me or appeal to me, then I would do them. But this is the first time I’ve done a bona fide show again, the one at the Franklin. The one for the benefit is just gonna be a lot of fun with just Gretchen and I singing six, seven songs apiece and calling it done.

The potent female voices in country music have been drastically marginalized over the past few years when it comes to the charts. I’ve seen the argument made, though I don’t entirely buy it myself, that today’s female country fans would rather hear a hot guy singing to them than they would hear a woman. When you began you pursuit of a country career, did you have any sense of who your audience would be? And were you proven right?

I had no idea. I just wrote songs that I liked, that I thought said something that I meant, and that I would enjoy singing a hundred thousand times.

I think that’s always been the case about the women wanting to see a hunk singing love songs to them. There’s always been that. But if you give them a song they can relate to…

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.

When it came to your songs, it was striking that you didn’t cede territory like sensuality, the voicing of desire or the pursuit of pleasure to younger singers. You sang about the appeal of life experience in songs like “‘80s Ladies.” Why’d you make those things so central to your repertoire?

If I was writing at 20, I would’ve written entirely differently, because you see life entirely differently. But as an almost 50 year-old, it’s different. It’s sexual, but it’s not quite so in-your-face. It’s a different deal. For me to try to stand up there and say, “I’m going to wear hair extensions and long fingernails and show a lot of skin, and then I’ll sing about crying”… [laughs heartily] that wouldn’t have worked. I just sang what I felt at the time.

It’s always interesting to see how people perceive you. I was perceived as being very sexual, I think, in the beginning, and that’s just a big hoot: “Who, me?”

How did you deal with the cultural paradigm that says a woman of a certain age ought to keep those parts of herself to herself?

No one ever said that to me. I never heard that. And I wouldn’t have paid any attention even if I had.

You did seem to confront those sorts of ideas with humor in the title you chose for your greatest hits collection, Songs From an Aging Sex Bomb. I also found an old clip of you performing “Do Ya” on Nashville Now, where you changed a line to “Do you still like the feel of my somewhat older body lying next to ya?”

I started doing that in the shows, because it got such a response from the people. They were delighted to see someone more representational of them, talking about the audience. They were very taken by that. And that’s great. We should have music for all of us. Music isn’t just for a 20-year-old. It’s for all of us.

It’s like the movies. I go to movies a lot. These movies come along that are what I would call adult movies. They’re not silly, goofy things, although they’re fun. They’re for a grown-up audience. And the theater’s filled, filled with people that are a little older. But if you give it to them, if you build it, they will come.

I also stumbled upon an old 20/20 interview from 1990. You had to field questions like “Do you think you’ll ever get married? Do you mind not having kids?” How often did those kinds of topics come up?

You know, that was about the only time. It was very interesting. People mostly asked me about my writing and they asked me when I was gonna have another album and sort of work-related things. I didn’t get very personal questions asked of me, except in the very beginning. …In all the years I lived in New York—23 years—nobody ever asked me a thing about that.

I would expect you to be asked about those kinds of things more in the context of country music than in the New York performing scene, because marriage and kids are almost the expectation of what a woman in country would want.

I was asked way in the beginning by a woman writer, she asked me, “You’ve never been married?” And I said, “No.” She said, “Why not?” I said, “To be quite honest, I’ve always sort of dated guys in the business. They’ve either been actors or they’ve been musicians. They’re all charming and they’re all talented and they’re all just adorable, but they’re not the marrying kind. I think if someone had come up to me and said, ‘Oh, I’m just dying to get married and have three children and live in a house in the woods,’ I might’ve been dazzled by that. But I think I would’ve been lousy at it.” I just told them I’ve never really found a guy that I thought honestly that it would work. She paused for a minute and she said, “Well, that’s never stopped the rest of us.”

Considering how clearly you were able to articulate the life decisions that you’d made, it makes sense that you’d want to play a Planned Parenthood benefit show.

Absolutely. I’ve even written a song kind of about Planed Parenthood that I’m gonna do. ... I have written no music since I quit. I think I’ve written two songs.

I have a darling little dog named Lolita. I thought, “Lolita, Lolita. That’s rather musical.” And I ended up writing a song. It could be a mother talking to a daughter. It could be an aunt, a sister, a friend, grandma. But it’s an older woman telling the girl, “Hey, take it easy. Move slow. You don’t want to be a 20-year-old with a husband, with an ex-husband and a string of boyfriends that ain’t worth nothing.” She’s just trying to save her a little heartache.

Is it called “Lolita”?

It’s called, “Go Slow Lolita” [laughs]. Now we know what it’s about.

It’s interesting to write now, without being under the ... although I had nothing but good things to say about my record company. They gave me just enough rope to hang myself. ... But to not be working under the [pressure of] trying to get a song on the radio and trying to fit what everybody wants to promote these days. It’s just write what you write when you write it. And boy, that’s a lot more fun. ... You can write about, “Why is my grass so pitiful?” You can just fly with it. But if you’re in the biz, there are some rules you’re supposed to follow, or you get a lot of flack. And I just never liked those rules.

Speaking of rules, I have to wonder if you would have caught some flack back in the day for playing a Planned Parenthood benefit.

No, not really. At least they didn’t fight me on things like that. Benefits are a different story. You have a cause that you believe in and that you wanna help. So that’s up to you. That’s a very personal thing. The record company may not like it, but they’re not gonna say, “You can’t do that.” Or at least I never ran into that. ... They just would say. “Oh my God. Here she goes again.” ... I had a great record company. They were always really, really good to me.

Gretchen Peters said, “When I heard your album — the first one — I turned to someone I was with who was also a writer and said, ‘Can we say things like that? Well, I guess we can.’” It sort of changed what people thought they could write.

That’s not a bad legacy to have.

Oh, I’m very pleased to hear that. That’s a real compliment.

When you do your Franklin Theatre performance, will you have a full band?

Well, full-band for me is four pieces. That’s what I toured with, except when we started really making big money I added a player. It’s gonna look very strange, I think, to people, because we’ve gotten very used to big productions in country, with fiddle players and banjo players and three backup singers and a dancer, everybody flailing and twirling and spinning around. And I do none of that.

I got a fan letter from a fan one time that cracked me up. She loved everything about me, my hair, my jacket, my shoes, the music. But she said, “You need to do more dipping.”

Um, dipping?

I realized she meant dancing. And I thought, “No, I don’t need to do dancing. I’m not a dancer. You’re gonna have to just put up with me singing.” So there’ll be no dipping, even though times have changed.

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