In early 1970, Brian Wilson called Beach Boys manager Fred Vail to a Los Angeles hotel room to propose an idea that was outlandish even by his wild standards: a country music album with Vail on lead vocals that he’d produce. The fact that Vail was a businessman without any formal singing experience didn’t strike Wilson as any sort of obstacle.
“I said to him, ‘Have you written any country songs?’” Vail recalls to Rolling Stone. “And he said, ‘Well, no.’ I said, ‘Do you have any idea who you’d like to use as musicians?’ He said, ‘Well, no. I’ve only worked with the Wrecking Crew for the most part. You find the songs. You select the musicians. We’ll go into Wally Heider’s Studio. We’ll start working on the album.’”
For a couple of weeks in April 1970, while the Beach Boys cut Sunflower at a nearby studio, that’s exactly what happened. Working alongside studio legends like guitarist James Burton, pianist Glen D. Hardin, and steel guitarist Red Rhodes, they recorded basic tracks for 14 songs. But midway through the process, before Vail had the chance to record anything but scratch vocals, Wilson lost interest and abandoned the project.
“He was dealing with a lot of issues,” Vail, now 79, says. “He had gained a lot of weight and was sleeping late in his big bed. There was a lot of things going on with him personally, and he didn’t have any interest in finishing it at that point, so the tapes went into the vault at the Beach Boy office.”
As the years ticked by, the aborted album became part of Beach Boys lore, taking on the name of Cows in the Pasture for reasons that not even Vail can recall. (It was nameless when they cut it.) Many Beach Boys aficionados dreamed of one day having the chance to hear what country music would sound like with Wilson behind the mixing desk, ace musicians in the studio, and an untrained singer on lead vocals.
They’ll have the chance at some point in 2025 when Cows in the Pasture finally comes out alongside a docuseries that traces Vail’s incredible life story and the unlikely resurrection of his country record, which is being finished right now with producer Sam Parker and a series of all-star guest vocalists. Wilson has signed back onto the project as an executive producer and guest singer on one of the tracks.
“Fred always loved country music and he was a big rodeo guy,” Brian Wilson tells Rolling Stone. “He’s a hell of a guy, one hell of a promoter, and I’m glad his album is coming out.”
Vail’s history in the music industry stretches all the way back to the Fifties when he was a precocious teenager that booked shows by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Jan and Dean, and the Diamonds at his high school. He even talked his way onto the set of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet to interview Ricky Nelson for the school newspaper. “I went on the radio as a teen announcer on a Saturday morning program when I was 12,” he says. “I’ve just been 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’ had been the big music in ’60, ’61,” he says. “It was now ’63. Surf music was happening. Every label, independent or major, had a surf band. There were the Challengers, the Merced Blue Notes, the Astronauts, the Lively Ones, Dick Dale and the Del-tones. They were all guitar bands, basically. Very, very limited vocals.”
When Vail was asked to assemble a fundraiser for El Camino High School at 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’ U.S.A.” When he reached out to their agent at William Morris, he learned the Beach Boys could be booked for just $750. They never traveled far from Los Angles for shows since member Carl Wilson was still in high school, but he arranged plane tickets so they could make it.
The May 23, 1963, show was the band’s first headlining gig outside of L.A. It went so well that Beach Boys manager Murry Wilson hired Vail to map out a tour for the Beach Boys to play all across America in the years that followed. He tagged along for all the trips and grew close to the band. “Whenever I would pick them up at the airport, I’d have a country music station on, because that was my background,” Vail says. “I’d been a country DJ when I was 17. I’d be singing along to Johnny Cash or Marty Robbins, and they’d flip it to the pop station, just playing their new music. And then I’d tease them and I’d flip it back to the country station, and it was kind of like an ongoing gag.”
Vail was in the room when Brian Wilson and Mike Love sat on a hotel room bed and wrote “The Warmth of the Sun” the evening of the JFK assassination. He was counting out piles of cash from a concert on one bed with Murry Wilson while Brian and Mike created the harmonies on the other one. 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!”) at the beginning of 1964’s Beach Boys Concert, an album he talked them into releasing. 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 into the fold in 1969 to manage them.
He wasn’t back long when Brian Wilson began reflecting on the band’s early days in the car when Vail would sing along to country songs on the radio. He wanted to capture that voice on record, and they came up with a list of songs that included Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely,” Hank Williams’ “You Win Again,” and “Burt Bacharach’s “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me.”
“We never did any keeper vocals,” Vail says. “They were mostly just scratch vocals that we never completed. There were no background vocals and no harmonies. It was a lot instrumentation. And when Brian lost interest, I just moved on. It was kind of like, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ I didn’t figure anything would ever be done with them.”
About 10 years ago, long after Vail left the Beach Boys world, he got a call from their management team. “They said, ‘Fred, we were going through the vault and we found these five two-inch rolls of tape with your name and Brian’s name on them,’” Vail said. “‘Do you know anything about them?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s the country album that Brian and I started back in 1970.’” And they said, ‘Well, what should we do with them?’ And I said, ‘Well, don’t throw them out. If you’re trying to clean out the vault, just send it to me and I’ll keep them.’”
Right around this time, Nashville-based talent agent/producer Sam Parker came across Fred Vail on Facebook. Parker is a lifelong Beach Boys fanatic, and he recognized the name immediately. “I reached out to Fred, not thinking he would actually respond,” Parker says. “But he did and I said, ‘Hey, I’d love to take you for a cup of coffee and hear some stories.’ And from moment one that we sat down, something inside was like, ‘You have to hit record on your phone.’ And I’m thankful I did, because every story he told was just jaw dropping. Fred was the fly in the room for everything.”
Parker and Vail developed a Tuesdays with Morrie-like friendship. “I went from fan to family,” says Parker. “I look at Fred at the grandfather I never really got to know. It’s been a journey.”
When Parker heard about the Cows in the Pasture tapes sitting in Vail’s garage, the wheels started moving in his head. This was an opportunity to not only finish the project Vail started with Brian Wilson back in 1970, but to tell the world about Vail’s life at the same time.
They will enter the studio with a group of guest vocalists they’re not ready to name yet. “They’re country music legends,” Parker says. “They’re rock & roll legends, 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 back in 1970.)
Vail’s voice has changed quite a bit in the past five decades, but Parker saw that as an opportunity to try a different tactic with the vocals. “The idea was to take this kind of Johnny Cash approach,” he says. “Late in his career, when he didn’t have the twang he used to have, they reinvented his voice with a sort of spoken-work approach. That’s sort of what Fred is doing in the studio.”
A camera crew was on hand to film all of the studio work. “As of right now, we’re creating a four-part docuseries,” says Parker, who adds that Wilson will executive produce the series with him. “The first episode will tell Fred’s story. Episode two will be the story of Cows in the Pasture. Episode three takes place afterwards when Fred left California and came East. Episode four concludes the whole thing with the finishing of the album.”
They’re in talks with a “major distributor” to release the docuseries in 2025. Plans are in flux, but it might include “cinematic re-imaginings” of key moments from Vail’s life utilizing actors.
For Vail, all the attention has been overwhelming. “It’s been a roller coaster,” he says. “It shows me that the stuff we recorded in April ’70 is timeless. I was really, really proud of this record, and even though it sat in the can for decades, literally, I always was thinking, ‘Man, that’d be great to get back into the studio and finish this thing.’ And now that’s happening.”