Betty Buckley: Fort Worth’s real ‘voice’

By Mark Lowry,
September 18, 2014

Fort Worth’s Tony-winning Broadway star Betty Buckley has already made it clear how she feels about vocal competition reality shows. In 2012, she had the blogosphere buzzing when she called out American Idol judge Randy Jackson on Twitter for dissing singers for sounding “too Broadway.” (She later saw Jackson in L.A. and introduced herself, and they had a good chat.)

It’s because she cares about good, thoughtful vocals. Buckley, who has released one the best albums of her career this week, the T-Bone Burnett-produced Ghostlight, has long been a fan of such shows, and even though she hasn’t watched The Voice in a season, is excited about the additions of Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams.

“I’m a huge Gwen Stefani fan,” she says, “and Pharrell.”

Would Buckley be right for a judge on the show?

“I don’t think I’d be a good judge, but I would love to be a mentor and coach,” she says. “I’d love to teach them about song interpretation.”

That is something Buckley knows as well as anyone. Her song interpretation master classes have been popular in Fort Worth and around the country for years — her next session is in October in New York. And all you have to do is see her in concert, or listen to an album, to know that she loves to give her own spin on American standards, show tunes and songs written by songwriters such as Mary Chapin Carpenter and Tom Waits, both of whom are represented on the haunting Ghostlight.

“I feel blessed to have been a Broadway leading lady,” she says, “but my tastes are very eclectic. I love the great female vocalists, also Brazilian music and jazz, and as a child of the ’60s, I love artists like Jefferson Airplane, Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan.

“I was very influenced by that music, and that’s always part of who I am,” she says. “I’ve never understood the need in our society to be so categorical. Good songs come from all kinds of music, from all over the world.”

Ghostlight has a rich, textured production with an atmospheric, moody sound, thanks to Burnett, a longtime friend of Buckley’s who produced the first album she recorded, in his Fort Worth studio, in 1967 (there were only two copies of it; it was officially released in 2007).

On Ghostlight, Buckley sings a number of Broadway songs, but often in a quieter voice with downbeat arrangements: Lerner and Loewe’s “Come to Me, Bend to Me” (from Brigadoon, a show she starred in a student at Texas Christian University), Rodgers and Hart’s torchy “Bewitched” from Pal Joey, and Jerome Moross’ “Lazy Afternoon” from The Golden Apple, the album’s best track. Her take on Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away” is stunning, as are Tom Waits’ “Take It With Me When I Go”, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Where Time Stands Still” and Jefferson Airplane’s “Comin’ Back to Me.”

As she says — and it’s advice that The Voice contestants and judges could use — “good songs are good songs, wherever you find it. Broadway has always been an art form, it’s always included every kind of music.”

Plus, wouldn’t it be cool to see the chair turn around and there sits a Broadway legend?