Brian Wilson’s Lost Country Album: “Brian said, I want to do a country album, and I want you to be the vocalist”

Brian Wilson returns to his lost 1970 country album, Cows In The Pasture. Collaborator Fred Vail reveals all.

Brian Wilson

by mojo |
Updated on

WHEN BRIAN WILSON called Beach Boys manager Fred Vail in early 1970, Vail figured it was to discuss business. Sometimes called ‘The Sixth Beach Boy’, he’d worked with them since 1963, and was a fly on the wall for such memorable moments as the writing of The Warmth Of The Sun and the first playback of Pet Sounds.

“Brian said, ‘I want to do a country album, and I want you to be the vocalist,’” recalls Vail, who had no recording experience but adds, “I’m no Carl Wilson, but I can carry a tune.”

As they talked, Vail realised that Wilson didn’t have a plan. “I asked, Did you write any songs? ‘No.’ Do you have a band? ‘No.’ He said, ‘You pick the songs, you get the musicians, and we’ll go into Wally Heider’s studio.’”

READ MORE: The Beach Boys' 50 Greatest Songs

Vail reached back to his days as a country DJ, selecting favourites by Hank Williams and Elvis, plus contemporary tunes by James Taylor and Bacharach & David. For musicians, he called “players who knew country music,” such as James Burton and Glen D Hardin.

Basic tracks and scratch vocals were cut for 14 songs, with Wilson guiding the proceedings. “The sound was traditional country, with a pop edge,” Vail says. “Remember the time – LA in 1970 was going through a country rock era. Linda Ronstadt, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils. We were channelling some of that.”

But two weeks in, Wilson lost interest. “It was unknown territory for him,” says Vail. This was also Brian Wilson’s bed-and-bathrobe period of weight gain, drugs, seclusion. In 1971, he’d abandon another extracurricular production, for American Spring, his wife Marilyn’s duo with her sister. Vail says, “I figured, Maybe we’ll get back to recording when he’s in the mood. That never happened.”

In the years after, the project took on the name Cows In The Pasture. Vail moved on to various music biz gigs, and later opened Treasure Isle Studio in Nashville. In 2014, a call came from The Beach Boys’ management. While clearing the vaults, they’d found five boxes of tape from the sessions with Wilson. Vail said, “Don’t throw them out, send them to me!”

Without funds to finish them, he let the tapes sit. More years passed. Enter promoter and Beach Boys fanatic Sam Parker, who encouraged Vail to revisit the songs and is finishing the album. Co-produced by T Bone Burnett and featuring special guests – “rock’n’roll legends and contemporary country stars,” teases Parker – Cows is slated for 2025, paired with a making-of docu-series. With no advance music, we can only wonder: will this be the country SMiLE, or another Stars And Stripes (1996’s best-forgotten Beach Boys country mash-up)?

“There wasn’t anything overtly Brian in the original tracks, but there will be in the overdubs – there’s even going to be a Van Dyke Parks/Brian Wilson instrumental added in,” says Vail, who’s been assured that Brian “is really into finishing it.”

In January, Brian lost his wife Melinda, and soon after it was reported that he has dementia; his family are to appoint conservators to supervise his affairs.

“We know about the dementia story and the conservatorship, and unfortunately, he just lost Melinda,” says Vail. “But his manager Jean Sievers is very involved – and co-producer of the documentary – and she’s assured us that Brian’s going to continue with the project as executive producer.”

Brian Wilson photo: Getty/Michael Ochs

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us