Boxcar Willie - Biography
Boxcar Willie was a unique figure in country music, both as a self-made myth and as an artist who, after years of marginal dabbling at the genre’s fringes, transformed himself into an international sensation. With his rumpled bib-and-tucker overalls, scraggly beard and the ability to vocally deliver a piercing, pitch-perfect train whistle effect, the singer-guitarist represented an appealing host of bygone socio-cultural touchstones—steam locomotives, carefree tramps, old-time hillbilly music—and ultimately sold multi-millions of albums in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. A resolute traditionalist who presented himself as the romanticized archetype of the freight-hopping hobo, Boxcar Willie’s shrewd exploitation of American iconography succeeded due to one very simple fact: he was dead serious about it all, and despite the fact this stage persona was entirely fabricated, no one could question the legitimacy of his music.
Born Lecil Travis Martin in Sterratt, Texas on September 1, 1931, he was the son of a railroad employee and grew up in a converted train yard tool shed located just half-a-dozen feet from a set of tracks. He began perfecting his signature train whistle while still a toddler, and grew up playing on sidelined boxcars and listening non-stop to Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts and Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff records. Taking up the guitar as a youth, he played local dances and soon graduated to appearances at Dallas’ famed Big D Jamboree, a country music revue held at the Sportatorium arena, where musicians and touring stars shared equal time with wrestling matches.
Unable to gain a foothold within Dallas’ rough and tumble country scene, Martin enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1949, and by the time the America entered the Korean War, rose to the position of flight engineer for a B-29 bomber. While he remained in the USAF for years as a career pilot, Martin continued his at times rocky romance with country music, and worked for a time behind the microphone at Fort Worth, Texas’ Cowtown Hoedown radio broadcast. In 1960, billed as Marty Martin and backed by a trio, The Rangers, he barnstormed regularly through Texas, Kansas, the Dakotas and Nebraska, where he had a regular—if short-lived—television gig on KOLN.
While driving through Lincoln, Nebraska one afternoon, he was stopped at railroad crossing and spied a lone hobo inside a passing boxcar. Struck by the resemblance the tramp had to a friend of Martin’s named Willie, he composed, on the spot, the song “Boxcar Willie.” Not long after, he entered a talent night contest at a San Jose, California honky-tonk, introduced himself as Boxcar Willie, performed the song and won the $150 first place cash prize. That day signaled the end of Marty Martin.
While he continued his service by day and worked as a country radio DJ by night, by 1976, he sought a discharge from the Air Force. Once it was granted, he moved his family to Texas and began performing under his new stage name. Later that year, subbing at a George Jones no-show at Grand Prairie, Texas’ Silver Saddle, Boxcar impressed George’s manager so much that he invited the singer to come to Nashville and work at Jones’ own Possum Holler Club. The offer proved fortuitous—after a country music promoter from Scotland caught Boxcar’s act there, a UK tour was booked and Boxcar’s career, decades in the making, finally took off.
With his hobo image, mind-bending train whistle gimmick and an engaging repertoire that mixed his colorful original songs with Hank Williams and Roy Acuff covers and a raft of train and trucker songs, Boxcar Willie’s carefully manufactured stage show resonated with British country music fans. By 1979, Boxcar was well enough known to participate—alongside the biggest Nashville stars of the day—in the prestigious Wembley Stadium Country Music Festival. In both the UK and America, Boxcar Willie began marketing his albums via a series of attention-grabbing television commercials, and the combination of his on-the-bum image and unadulterated traditional country finally got him the response he had sought for decades. He sold the discs by the millions, making himself a household name and moving more units than just about anyone else in the business (at the time sales of 100,000 were considered impressive for a country artist).
While many derided Boxcar Willie as a phony, the vast majority of his buyers were repeat customers, and he pumped out album after album. Boxcar Willie was vindicated—and almost moved to tears—when he was invited to the Grand Ole Opry in 1981 and personally inducted, as an Opry cast member, by his lifelong idol, Roy Acuff. He opened his own theater in country music resort town Branson, Missouri in 1985, and performed there for the rest of his days. Stricken with Leukemia, Boxcar Willie eventually died from the disease, jumping a Hillbilly heaven bound freight on April 12, 1999.