The story behind the release of Victoria Hallman's debut album, "From Birmingham to Bakersfield," 41 years after its making, is as curious as it is fascinating.
But much like a puzzle with missing pieces, this tale can't be finished until those pieces are found, or, in this case, identified. There are a lot of questions surrounding this album that can hopefully be answered with its release and growing attention given to it.
With 10 of the 13 tracks produced by the late Buck Owens, backed by the Buckaroos, and co-produced and engineered by Owens' Buckaroo right-hand man Jim Shaw (who also wrote four songs on the album), "From Birmingham to Bakersfield" is a solid musical artifact of its time.
One that would be of interest to Buck Owens fans, Bakersfield country music historians and anyone who enjoys early 1980s "Urban Cowboy"-era pop country.
Because, as its title suggests, the roads for the album and Hallman herself are ones filled with distance, tenacity, disappointment, loss and maybe even some divine intervention.
Especially since in 2006 it was discovered that the master tapes for the album were, well, gone.
Missing without a trace.
If it wasn't for a fortuitous discovery many years later, the album would have been safely relegated into the "lost" category.
It will be released by Omnivore Records on CD and digital formats through their website on Friday. A limited edition LP was released Saturday for Record Store Day. (World Records had a limited amount for sale at the time of this writing.)
The location of the lost master tapes isn't the only mystery. During a phone interview with Hallman from her home in Alabama, she mentioned that the album's song selection was intensive and that the identity of some of the album's songwriters, including the one for its first single "Bottle Up My Tears," remain unknown.
"Because Jim Shaw doesn't remember and neither do I," Hallman said.
If Owens knew who those songwriters were, or where those master tapes went to, he took that info with him to the grave.
"Buck always had a stockpile of songs," Hallman said. "People just sent him songs and I can remember being with him many times where people would just walk up and hand him a cassette."
"Interestingly, that's a good thing to do, as I found out, because sometimes he would actually listen to one of those cassettes. If someone caught him just as we were about to get into a limo or a car, a vehicle taking us somewhere, he would probably hand it to the driver and say, 'Hey, put that in and let's have a listen.'"
"It's not a bad idea to just walk up and hand something to somebody because it might end up in the trash, but it might also be listened to."
Musically, "From Birmingham to Bakersfield" fits right in with the crossover pop country hits of that time by the likes of Dolly Parton, Juice Newton and Crystal Gayle. It's fairly easy to imagine any of those three singers singing some of these songs. There's also a bit of variety with the sounds and themes from certain songs like the reggae-tinged "Please Please Me" (not The Beatles song) and the risque-but-safe "Sexy Movies."
The last three songs are demos of cover songs (including Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried") that Hallman recorded in at Producer's Workshop Studio Los Angeles in 1980 with a who's who of triple-scale session musicians of the time including James Burton on guitar, Hal Blaine on drums and Glen D. Hardin on keyboards.
Off to an early start
The album's extensive liner notes, which detail Hallman's life and career and the road to this album's discovery and release, state that Hallman began her career in show business very young. She was in televised talent showcases at 4 years old, signed a recording contract at 6 years old, releasing a single, "Send My Daddy Home," on the Nashville-based label Briar International and performing on the "The Steve Allen Show" two years later.
Around the time she turned 18, she was discovered and hired by the legendary comic actor Bob Hope who spurred her to move to Los Angeles under his mentorship.
"He said, 'You know, you really need to get out to Hollywood, because you're really good, and if you come out there, I will help you' and he did," Hallman said. "The powers-that-be in Birmingham got together funds to finance my first year out there, which is amazing because they heard Bob Hope made this promise and this offer."
She would perform with him most memorably on the Cole Porter song "De-Lovely" in a comedy bit popularized by Hope and Ethel Merman in the 1936 Broadway musical "Red Hot and Blue," where the playfully conceited Hope would become increasingly dejected by being relegated to only saying the word "it's" during the chorus, as in "it's" "delightful ..." while the bubbly Merman — or Hallman — would sing the rest of the tune around him.
"There's so much that I look back on now with Bob Hope now — and very much with Buck — that I did not and just couldn't appreciate at the time," Hallman said. "I just didn't grasp how huge these stars were. I'm working with frigging Bob Hope! And I just didn't get it because I was just a little teenager. I mean, if it were The Beatles I would have understood, but Bob Hope, I didn't quite get the magnitude."
Hope introduced Hallman to "a very good manager," William Loeb, who represented some famous clientele of that time including Rosemary Clooney whom Hallman was around with "all the time. (Her) and her kids."
"I met Buck Owens because of this manager," Hallman said. "It was an accident, but still..."
A few years later, with Hallman now in her 20s, Loeb took her to the massive Orange Fair in San Bernardino to watch the artist he booked to play at the 5,000-seat auditorium: Buck Owens.
"I wanted to go to the fair, because I wanted to ride the rides," Hallman said. "I was that young."
Loeb, knowing Hallman was not a fan of country music in general, was quite apologetic but was quite familiar with Owens.
"You could only get one radio station in Birmingham really clearly and that was WVOK, which was a pop station, but Buck Owens, back then, for many radio stations and for Nashville as a matter of fact, was considered a crossover artist because, you know, he had those twanging Telecasters and electric guitars and stuff. He was not just really country, or so a lot of country people thought. So I heard Buck Owens' music in my home because it was on the pop station."
"I can remember some of the first songs I could ever sing harmony to and one of them was 'Love's Gonna Live Here.' I would sing the Don Rich part. I guess I was rehearsing for my future and didn't know it."
After enjoying the fair rides, armed with a huge roll of tickets and not wanting to upset Loeb by being late, Hallman rushed to the auditorium.
"I was literally running in my jeans through the backstage door and bam! I ran into what felt like a human building," Hallman said. "I'm small, I'm 5'3", and I looked up and I was staring at Buck Owens."
In a display of effective managerial work, Loeb quickly was by Hallman's side and greeted the imposing Owens and his manager, Jack McFadden.
"He said, 'I want to introduce you to Vicki Hallman (I was Vicki then). She's a really good little country singer and you could use a girl in your act.'
"Now part of that was true. Buck usually did like to have a girl in the act, whether it was a fiddler or a singer or whatever, he really believed that a female presence added another dimension to the show. (But) my head kinda whipped around when he said I was a good country singer because I didn't sing country at all."
Owens set up an impromptu audition where she sang "Help Me Make it Through the Night" in the key of A.
"They hit a chord, played it, I sang it," Hallman said, "and then Buck rested his hands — I can still see his hands resting on his guitar — and he said, 'That was good ... why don't you come out on stage and sing it with us?'"
"Being the young idiot that I was, I said, 'OK.' Just like that."
But there was more to this serendipitous first meeting than just a physical collision. Owens had noticed Hallman earlier that day when she first arrived with Loeb to get that roll of tickets for the rides.
"Buck was psychic, there's no doubt about it," Hallman said. "He said that he knew the minute he saw me that we would be connected in a significant way. He didn't know in what way, he just knew it. He knew before he even heard me sing. He felt energy, I think."
A fateful bus ride
Owens invited her the next day to meet with him and the Buckaroos at their studio in Bakersfield. She agreed, but there were two problems: She didn't know where Bakersfield was and she didn't have a car.
In a pragmatic display of the kind of straightforward, fearless gumption and charming moxie she naturally emanates, she took the bus to meet her future boss and bandmates.
"He didn't know that I took the bus until later," Hallman said. "It was like going through the Wild West going through that territory from Los Angeles to Bakersfield."
She did her homework and learned some country songs and after the rehearsal Owens took her into the office and said, "We're going to have to do something about transportation because you're going to be having to come to Bakersfield a whole lot."
"That was how he basically told me that I got the gig."
She joined the Buckaroos in 1979 and went on the road with them soon after. At every concert, Hallman would sing four songs with the Buckaroos after they did their opening set. Owens would then join all of them.
Besides touring, Hallman contributed vocals to some of Owens' songs recorded during his tenure with Warner Bros. Records including his most successful single of that late 1970s era, "Let Jesse Rob The Train."
(Those songs and more can be found on the 2006 compilation "The Warner Bros. Recordings.")
In October 1979, she joined the cast of the show "Hee Haw" where she became a Hee Haw Honey, eventually playing the not-so-subtly-named character Miss Honeydew. She was the only female member of the cast that was both a full-time member of the band and a full-time member of the comedy ensemble.
A few years later in 1981, Owens suggested that she should record a full-length solo album that he would produce. The recording took place in early 1982 at Owens' recording studio and office on North Chester Avenue over three sessions.
Owens left a lot of the heavy lifting to Shaw, who would oversee string overdubs at a studio in Fresno and took on a lot of the instrumental production. Owens was more involved in the release's more conceptual aspects and with the lead vocal recording process, asking Hallman to approach songs, like the single "Lay Your Heart On Mine," with greater attention to dynamics to contrast her belting singing style.
"I was already doing that somewhat but he wanted me to get even more personal, more intimate, more tender on the softer parts," Hallman said. "When you hear that song ('Lay Your Heart on Mine') you can hear that influence, not note-for-note how to sing, but the feel of the vocals that he wanted."
The record also came with another stage name change for Hallman who would go by Jesse Rose McQueen. While these changes were happening to Hallman professionally, her personal life was in turmoil, going through a "terrible, terrible, heartbreaking" divorce.
"He (Buck) called me Jesse Rose until the day he died," Hallman said.
According to Hallman, Owens was going through a "mid-career crisis" at the same time.
"We were both going through a time where we didn't have the energy to do much of anything anymore. He was helping me get through the divorce. I used his divorce lawyer. He finally said, 'Your divorce is taking too long. Let me send you the one I used.' So he did!"
"I think he thought, 'Now is not the time for her to be a star because she's a mess' and I was."
To Owens' disappointment, Hallman abruptly left Los Angeles for Nashville in 1986 and the record's release was left in limbo. She recorded a single there in 1987, "Next Time I Marry," and left "Hee Haw" in June 1989. She moved back to Alabama in 2019.
"I think I hurt Buck's feelings because he was trying to do all of this for me and I kinda didn't appreciate it," Hallman said.
Owens hit a massive career resurgence in 1988 with his duet with Dwight Yoakam on his cover of "Streets of Bakersfield." That momentum led to the construction of Owens' most towering legacy: the Crystal Palace. He passed away in 2006 at 76.
Hallman contacted Shaw later that year about the possibility of finally releasing her debut album only to find out that the master tapes were missing.
"It was heartbreaking," Hallman said. "Ultimately, I just finally had to accept that for whatever reason, this is gone forever. All that work."
A yard sale miracle
She pivoted and worked as a columnist for Flower Magazine and a blogger for the Alabama Music Office. In 2018, she authored a shared memoir with fellow Hee Haw Honey Diana Goodman, "Hollywood Lights, Nashville Nights: Two Hee Haw Honeys Dish Life, Love, Elvis, Buck & Good Times in the Kornfield."
That book enabled Hallman to join the Author's Guild and in the path of what was to come next.
As she said in the album's liner notes, "In 2019, I got a message from the Guild saying someone was trying to get in touch with me, and they wanted to know if it was okay to let this person contact me, so I said 'Yes.'"
"It was a guy named Joe Ornelas. He said that he was a record collector and he had found an album of mine at a yard sale with my name on it, and that he'd email me a list of the song titles."
"I was actually sitting in my car waiting for my husband to come out of the veterinarian's office when I got Joe's email with the song list, and I literally started screaming! I was sitting there thinking. 'This is the record Buck produced. But how did it become an album? Has somebody bootlegged it?'"
The album Ornelas had purchased was an acetate copy: a vinyl test pressing used to determine audio quality that deteriorates with use.
"I talked to Joe on the phone and finally realized that what he had was an acetate. So, I called Jim Shaw and learned from him that Buck always made an acetate of everything he did. He still liked to hear things on a turntable."
Whether or not the acetate belonged to Buck is a mystery as are some of the vocal and instrumental overdubs that made it to the final mix that Shaw said happened without his knowledge. The acetate was pressed in Los Angeles where it appears those overdubs were made.
Ornelas sent the acetate to Hallman at no charge. After some hesitation, Hallman got in contact with Omnivore Records who had put out many Buck Owens releases in the past. They digitally corrected many of the sonic anomalies inherent in the acetate and put out a release that may sound of its time but with the clarity of a recording done today.
The album's liner notes, written by Randy Poe, one of the new recording's producers, are fantastic.
Poe is no stranger to Owens having helped write Owens' 2016 "Buck 'Em: The Autobiography of Buck Owens."
"First of all, whatever I did with this, I wanted it to be a work of art," Hallman said. "I don't think Buck Owens ever produced an album with another female, so this is really a rarity. It's a legacy project. It's a legacy for Buck, a legacy for me, a legacy for Jim Shaw. I wanted it to be something that Buck Owens would be proud of."
As Hallman said in that legacy release's liner notes, "I think Buck Owens is pulling strings for me up there."