On Her New Album, Ghostlight, Betty Buckley Partners with Childhood Pal T Bone BurnettBy Mary Lyn Maiscott, Vanity Fair September 25, 2014
In 1982 Betty Buckley stole the Broadway show Cats with her riveting rendition of “Memory.” After picking up a Tony for that performance, she went on to star in such shows as Sunset Boulevard and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, as well as on television (Eight Is Enough) and in film (Tender Mercies). She’s released 16 solo albums and has appeared in concert halls all over the world.
Lately the Grammy-nominated singer has teamed up with her childhood friend T Bone Burnett for Ghostlight, an evocative blend of show tunes, standards, and rock. The album, including a limited art-box edition that will be available in October, was released earlier this month. Buckley recently spoke to VF Daily from her Texas ranch—where she’s preparing for Ghostlight concerts in New York and San Francisco—touching on such topics as surviving Stephen Sondheim’s disapproval, winning horse-show competitions, and kissing Laurie Metcalf.
VF Daily: When you started out, did you want to be an actress or a singer?
Betty Buckley: Well, they say I first sang when I was two. My mother took me to see my first musical when I was 11, which was The Pajama Game. I learned the song “Steam Heat” for my junior-high talent show. Everyone around me realized then that I had this big voice that was kind of made for the musical theater. I arrived in New York in January of 1969 and got my first musical, 1776, on my first day—the role of Martha Jefferson.
So even though you were singing with jazz combos when you were very young—
When I was a teenager I was singing around Fort Worth. All the musicians there would gather at a record store, so I knew T Bone. He had his own recording studio from age 17, and our mothers decided we needed to do a recording together. [It was released] several years ago, called Betty Buckley: 1967. T Bone and I had stayed in touch and when we’d get together he’d always say, we need to make another record, and I’d say, “O.K.,” but it was just talk. So I sent him the 1967 recording and he was very moved. Out of the blue he called me a couple of years ago and said, “Let’s make that record.”
T Bone used the term “crime jazz” in describing what the record’s sound would be. What was his vision?
He said, “It’s this club in 1950s L.A. where these dangerous men and glamorous women congregate, and something apocalyptic is coming from outside, and you’re the singer in the band and everyone goes there to be soothed by the music.” Then he starts laughing, and he goes, [in a scary voice] “It’s when the theater’s dark.” And I said, “Oh, you mean the ghost light,” the tradition in theater that when the performance is done, they place this light bulb on a stand to keep the ghosts company. He said, “That’s it, we’ll call it Ghostlight.”
The album is kind of understated and moody—in a very good way.
The songs are all just great songs. “Comin’ Back to Me” I’ve loved since I was 17; I love Jefferson Airplane. “Dreamsville” was written by Henry Mancini and debuted on Peter Gunn, and that was one of my favorite shows when I was growing up, with our black-and-white television. And “Lazy Afternoon” we kind of jokily call our “art piece.” It’s very psychedelic. I’m truly a child of the 60s, as T Bone is.
Did you ever want to be a rock ‘n’ roll singer?
Oh yeah, I wanted to move to California and go to Berkeley and be a part of that whole scene. My father said, “Absolutely not!” I’m really a rocker at heart…. The recording studio [for the album], the Village in L.A., was built for Fleetwood Mac. So there I was in Stevie Nicks’s booth, with tapestries and oriental rugs.
You’ve written songs as well?
When I was on Eight Is Enough I had this inspiration to write a children’s album because I played a stepmother [Abby Bradford]. I kept going to the producers and saying, “I’m a singer,” and they kept going, “Yeah, yeah.” Finally they wrote an episode where the Bradford family steps in for the talent that doesn’t show up, and I got to sing a song I wrote, “So-La.” All of my songs had kind of a philosophical—I learned to meditate when I was on the show. It afforded me a stability in Hollywood in those days, because it was like the wild, wild West. One of my closest friends was John Belushi . . . I changed my life through meditation and was able to walk through those early days in Hollywood with some sense of peace.
I was looking at a video of you singing “Memory” in Cats. It’s such an amazing moment. Did you know this was going to be part of theater history?
When I was cast as Grizabella for the Broadway production, the job assignment was [to] stop the show. Also, when we opened, Barbra Streisand had recorded her single of “Memory,” so I knew how iconic the song was already. I didn’t know, of course, that it would have the resonance it did, and it became my signature song.
So you never tire of singing that song?
No. It’s so beautiful. Grizabella is very meaningful to me; she’s like my soul mate, my teacher, kind of a lifetime companion. What’s fortunate about “Memory” is that I had eight weeks of rehearsal, four hours a day, with just a pianist and me, learning that song. We turned it inside out and upside down and we came up with this arrangement I called “Space Memory.” When I was out of Cats I started doing it in concert. The opening chords are just very different.
Are they 2001–ish?
I don’t know what they are! Some purists would object to the exploration I was doing. Like Stephen Sondheim. He came to see me in Sunset Boulevard and came backstage. He was playing with my puppy, and I said, “I’m such a fan of yours, and I recorded five albums and sent them to you and you’ve never responded, and I just wondered what you thought.” He goes, “Well, I would have never said anything, but since you asked, I don’t like them. . . . You’ve changed the music.” And I said, “Oh no, sir, we were so enamored of your use of dissonance, we always stated your themes and then took them further.” And he said, “Don’t ever do that.” And I said, “Yes sir, from now on we will do them exactly as you wrote them.” [Laughs]
You’re living in Texas again?
I moved back here [from New York] 12 years ago to ride cutting horses. After 9/11, I kind of lost focus and a sense of purpose and remembered in those months of loss that I’d forgotten to get my cutting horse.
What is a cutting horse?
It’s a sport in the tradition of the Old West, where these very intelligent horses separate one cow from a herd of cows. I connected with one of the top trainers, and he helped me find this magnificent horse named Purple Badger.
This was in Texas, you had already moved back?
No, I was commuting here, and I started winning in some of the amateur cutting-horse competitions. Then I realized that I needed to live where my horse lived. In short order, I found this ranch and sold my apartment. . . . I have a lot of rescue animals. It’s a nice counterpoint to the rest of my life, which is about traveling around—I recently did an episode of Getting On for HBO. I do my first on-screen girl-girl kiss with Laurie Metcalf. In rehearsal I said to her, “Laurie, this is the first time I’ve ever kissed a woman on-screen!” And she said, “Me too, Betty!” We were all embarrassed; it was hilarious. But this life change—at first my friends thought I was retiring. I said, “No, to keep this boat afloat with all these animals the catch-22 is I have to work all the time.” But I love these horses tremendously, and it’s given a real center to my life.