In the early 1970s, Brian Wilson called Beach Boys manager Fred Vail to a Los Angeles hotel room to propose an idea that was strange even by his wild standards: a country music album with Vail on lead vocals that he would produce. The fact that Vail was a businessman with no formal singing experience did not seem like any kind of obstacle to Wilson.
“I said to him, 'Did you write any country songs?'” Vail remembers. Rolling Stone. “And he said, 'Well, no.' I said, 'Do you have any ideas of who you'd like to use as musicians?' He said, 'Well, no. I just worked with the Wrecking Crew most of the time. You find the songs. You select the musicians. We will enter Wally Heider's studio. We’ll start working on the album.’”
For a few weeks in April 1970, while the Beach Boys cut Sunflower in a nearby studio, that's exactly what happened. Working alongside studio legends like guitarist James Burton, pianist Glen D. Hardin and guitarist Red Rhodes, they recorded basic tracks for 14 songs. But halfway through the process, before Vail had a chance to record anything other than scratch vocals, Wilson lost interest and abandoned the project.
“He was dealing with a lot of issues,” says Vail, now 79. “He gained a lot of weight and slept late in his big bed. There were a lot of things going on with him personally, and he had no interest in ending it at that point, so the tapes went into the Beach Boy office safe.”
Over the years, the aborted album became part of Beach Boys lore, taking on the name Cows in the pasture for reasons even Vail can't remember. (It wasn't named when they recorded it.) Many Beach Boys aficionados dreamed of one day having the chance to hear what country music would be like with Wilson behind the mixing desk, excellent musicians in the studio and an untrained singer on lead vocals.
They will get the chance sometime in 2025, when Cows in the pasture finally comes out alongside a docu-series that traces Vail's incredible life story and the unlikely resurrection of her country record, which is now being completed with producer Sam Parker and a host of celebrity guest vocalists. Wilson returned to the project as executive producer and guest singer on one of the tracks.
“Fred always loved country music and was a big rodeo guy,” says Brian Wilson Rolling Stone. “He’s an amazing guy, an amazing promoter, and I’m happy his album is coming out.”
Vail's history in the music industry dates back to the 1950s, when he was a precocious teenager who booked concerts by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Jan and Dean, and the Diamonds at his school. He even fought his way onto the set of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet to interview Ricky Nelson for the school newspaper. “I was in radio as a teen announcer on a Saturday morning show when I was 12,” he says. “I was very, very blessed to have these opportunities.”
He went to Sacramento State College to study journalism just as a new music craze was sweeping California. “'The Twist' was the big song of 1960, 1961,” he says. “It was now 1963. Surf music was happening. Every record company, independent or big, had a surf band. There were the Challengers, the Merced Blue Notes, the Astronauts, the Lively Ones, Dick Dale and the Del-tones. Basically they were all guitar bands. Very, very limited vocals.”
When Vail was asked to host a fundraiser for El Camino High School at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, his thoughts went to a new surf band that was just starting to gain national traction thanks to “Surfin' Safari” and “Surfin' USA ”. With his agent at William Morris, he discovered that the Beach Boys could be signed for as little as $750. They never traveled far from Los Angles for shows, as member Carl Wilson was still in high school, but he arranged tickets for plane so they could attend.
The May 23, 1963 show was the band's first show outside of Los Angeles. It went so well that Beach Boys manager Murry Wilson hired Vail to plan a tour for the Beach Boys to play across America in the years that followed. He followed all the trips and got close to the band. “Whenever I picked them up at the airport, there would be a country music station on, because that was my background,” Vail says. “I was a country DJ when I was 17. I would sing along with Johnny Cash or Marty Robbins, and they would switch to the pop station, just playing their new songs. And then I would tease them and go back to the country station, and it was like an ongoing joke.”
Vail was in the room when Brian Wilson and Mike Love sat on a hotel room bed and wrote “The Warm of the Sun” on the night of JFK’s assassination. He was counting stacks of money from a show on one bed with Murry Wilson while Brian and Mike created harmonies on the other. He's the voice you hear (“Now from Hawthorne, California, to entertain you tonight with a gala concert and recording session, the fabulous Beach Boys!”) in early 1964. Beach Boys concert, an album he convinced them to release. Vail left the group in 1966 to work at a live festival known as the Teen-Age Fair in Los Angeles, but was brought back in 1969 to manage them.
It didn't take long for him to return when Brian Wilson began reflecting on the band's early days in the car, when Vail sang country songs on the radio. He wanted to capture that voice on record, and they created a playlist that included Roy Orbison's “Only the Lonely,” Hank Williams' “You Win Again” and Burt Bacharach's “(There's) Always Something There to Remind.” ”. My.”
“We never did any protective vocals,” says Vail. “They were mostly scratch vocals that we never finished. There were no background vocals or harmonies. It was a lot of instrumentation. And when Brian lost interest, I just moved on. It was like, 'Out of sight, out of mind.' I didn’t imagine anything would be done with them.”
About 10 years ago, long after Vail left the Beach Boys world, he got a call from the management team. “They said, 'Fred, we were going through the safe and we found five two-inch rolls of tape with your name and Brian's name on it,'” Vail said. “'Do you know anything about them?' And I said, 'Yes, that's the country album that Brian and I started in 1970.'” And they said, 'Well, what should we do with them?' And I said, 'Well, don't throw them away. If you are trying to clear the vault, send me and I will keep them.'”
Around this time, Nashville talent agent/producer Sam Parker found Fred Vail on Facebook. Parker is a longtime Beach Boys fanatic and recognized the name immediately. “I reached out to Fred, not thinking he would actually respond,” says Parker. “But he did and I said, 'Hey, I'd love to take you out for a cup of coffee and hear some stories.' And from the first moment we sat down, something inside of us said, 'You have to record it on your phone.' And I'm grateful I did, because every story he told was jaw-dropping. Fred was the fly in the room on everything.”
Parker and Vail developed a Tuesdays with Morrie-like friendship. “I went from fan to family,” says Parker. “I look at Fred and the grandfather I never knew. It’s been a journey.”
When Parker heard about the Cows in the pasture tapes in Vail's garage, the wheels started moving in his head. This was an opportunity to not only finish the project that Vail started with Brian Wilson in 1970, but at the same time to tell the world about Vail's life.
They will enter the studio with a group of guest vocalists that they are not yet ready to name. “They are country music legends,” says Parker. “They are legends of rock & roll, contemporary country and pop stars too.” But he can reveal that 13-time Grammy winner T Bone Burnett will be involved. (The instrumental tracks were largely completed by 1970.)
Vail's voice has changed a lot over the past five decades, but Parker saw this as an opportunity to try a different tack with the vocals. “The idea was to take this kind of Johnny Cash approach,” he says. “Towards the end of his career, when he didn't have the accent he used to have, they reinvented his voice with a kind of spoken word approach. That’s what Fred is doing in the studio.”
A camera crew was present to film all the studio work. “As of right now, we are creating a four-part docuseries,” says Parker, adding that Wilson will executive produce the series with him. “The first episode will tell Fred’s story. The second episode will be the story of Cows in the pasture. The third episode takes place later, when Fred left California and came East. Episode four concludes everything with the album finale.”
They are in talks with a “major distributor” to release the docuseries in 2025. Plans are in flux, but could include “cinematic re-imaginings” of key moments in Vail’s life using actors.
For Vail, all the attention was overwhelming. “It’s been a rollercoaster,” he says. “This shows me that the material we recorded in April 70 is timeless. I was really, really proud of that album, and even though it sat in the can for literally decades, I always thought, 'Man, it would be great to get back in the studio and finish this.' And now this is happening.”