Country performer K.T. Oslin wears two hats and none of them go on her head.
With a flair that’s both heartfelt and sensual, Oslin sings and writes her own material. As a result, the 49-year-old former New Yorker stands alone, while many top country acts cling to Nashville’s songwriting flock like magnets to a refrigerator.
Refreshingly outspoken, Oslin proudly notes that eight of her hits – including “I’ll Always Come Back,” “80s’ Ladies,” “Hold Me” and “Hey Bobby” – were her own compositions.
“I spent my life singing other people’s songs . . . maybe `50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’ while I ironed or drove or washed dishes,” Oslin said. “Now there are people doing that with my music, and I’m thrilled about it.”
Indeed, Oslin’s songs have a way of making a direct hit on listeners’ emotions. The Grammy Award-winning “80s’ Ladies,” created an avalanche of response from fans, Oslin said, who wrote her to say, “You told my life story.”
In Nashville, a divorced gas station attendant, who recognized his customer as Oslin, described how “I’ll Always Come Back” makes him yearn to see his son.
“Tears started welling up in his eyes,” Oslin said. “That’s why writers write; to hit nerves and to reach people.”
In October, “Love in a Small Town,” Oslin’s first album in more than 25 months, will be released. Oslin delayed the release of her third record, breaking a country music tradition that artists put out an album each year (not to mention an obligatory Christmas LP periodically).
“I needed to take time off from touring and get back into writing,” she said. “I can’t sit in the hotel lobby or on the bus and write a song. I need to be in my (Nashville) house with my stuff.
“It’s nothing in rock to come out with an album every three years . . . It’s wonderful if you can put one out every year, but I think that uses talent up, quite honestly.”
Oslin appears at the Illinois State Fair Grandstand tonight with opening act Garth Brooks, a traditional country newcomer. Ricky Van Shelton, who was to co-headline with Oslin, canceled Tuesday.
Speaking by telephone (“I’m on a parked bus, staring into fog in Hampton Beach, Va.,” she said. “Could be better, could be worse.”), Oslin reflected on her quick rise to fame since her debut LP, 1987’s “80s’ Ladies.”
In 1980, “I had two singles released that lasted on the charts for about an hour and a half,” she said. “It was mass confusion. I don’t know why I signed on.”
A few years later, Oslin returned to Nashville, singing her own material at live showcases and putting her extensive background as a New York theater actress/singer to good use.
“I have been trained for performing,” she said. “I’m not out of the chute saying, `Golly, I’m only used to singing for my family.’ I’m a specialist.”
RCA Records executive Joe Galante signed Oslin, then warned her: “This will either work big or not at all.”
Within 2 1/2 years, Oslin had won three Grammy Awards and sold more than a million copies each of her two albums – an unprecedented accomplishment for a country music newcomer in her late 40s.
“When I was a teenager, I loathed country music. It was all sung by old men, who in reality were probably in their 30s but they seemed old, singing about drinking whiskey and cheating on their wives. It didn’t compute to a teenager.
“Country music is very adult. Most of all, I think you need to be grown up to really understand what they’re singing about.”
During her relatively brief country music career, she’s been hailed as a diva and described (by Tom T. Hall) as “everybody’s screwed-up sister.” She’ll accept most descriptions of her, except brassy.
“To me, it means some blonde who’s loud and obnoxious,” Oslin said. “I’m straightforward and upfront. I lived in New York for 21 years. I’m very direct and a lot of people aren’t used to that, especially from a woman.”
You want upfront? Consider her assessment of the music industry: “Talent actually has very little to do with (success). I have a realistic attitude. I have no fantasies about what this business is. It’s a bottom line. It doesn’t have anything to do with what a great person you are; it’s `Are you selling? Can you make me money?’ I’m not a dazzled-eyed little starlet who thinks it’s going to last forever.”
Later, she adds, “It seems lately all you have to do is put a hat on and be a cute guy and you’ll have instant success. Hopefully, that is changing.”
Oslin, who’s never been married, mixes that honesty and zeal on stage, appealing to a variety of fans.
“When the shows are just me (on the bill), a guy in his Wranglers will sit next to a woman with jewels on.”