Known as the world’s favorite hobo, Boxcar Willie took a long train ride to his destination as a country music star. When he finally got there, he didn’t waste a moment of his time. As a symbol of Americana, Boxcar Willie’s dedication to traditional country music earned the widespread appreciation of audiences in Europe, where he first established his career. In his lifetime, he wrote over 400 songs, recorded duets with country music icons Willie Nelson and Hank Williams, Jr., and became one of the first performers to establish his own theater in Branson, Missouri. His lifelong love of country music sustained him throughout his long and varied career.
Born Lecil Travis Martin on September 1, 1931, in Sterrat, Texas, he was the oldest of five children. Martin’s father worked for the railroad company that provided his family with a small house right next to the railroad tracks. For entertainment, Martin and his father would sit on the front porch and play music. Martin played guitar and his father played fiddle. Early in life Martin developed an appreciation for the music of Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff, and Ernest Tubb. He was also influenced by Hank Williams.
As a teenager Martin had two loves: music and trains. He often hopped the trains that passed by his home and would ride for days through Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi. Later in life he said he didn’t think that train riding was as safe as it was when he was a kid. He explained to the Shawnee News-Star, “Nowadays you’ve got all these trespassing laws. And who knows what they carry in boxcars these days, with all those pesticides, herbicides and things. It’s just not safe anymore.” Music took him in another direction. He played in jamborees throughout Texas, hoping to make the big time.
To support himself and earn a trade, Martin joined the Air Force in 1949. He became a flight engineer on bombers. He served during the Korean War, logging 500 hours of air combat. All the while though, he maintained his love for music and performing. Throughout the 1950s he performed as Marty Martin with a band called the Rangers. In 1958 he released an album called Marty Martin Sings Country Music and Stuff Like That. The album went nowhere, but Martin continued to tour the western states of Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Kansas. Eventually Marty Martin and the Rangers changed their name to the Four Black Crows. Martin also appeared regularly on radio shows like the Big D Jamboree out of Dallas and the Cowtown Hoe-down out of Fort Worth.
The 1960s found Martin continuing to play music in his spare time while holding down a job with the Air Force. Through the 1960s and 1970s he was a disc jockey in Corpus Christi, Texas. Eventually he realized that music was what he wanted to do with his life, and in 1976
Born Lecil Travis Martin on September 1, 1931, in Sterrat, TX; died on April 12, 1999, in Branson, MO, of leukemia; married second wife Lloene Johnson, c. 1962; children: Tammy (first marriage), twins Larry and Lorry (with Johnson).
Learned to play guitar as a child; as a teenager played local jamborees; joined the Air Force, 1949; toured Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Kansas as Marty Martin and the Rangers, which became the Four Black Crows, c. late 1950s; helped launch the Cowtown Hoedown in Fort Worth, TX, c. 1962; a regular on the Big D Jamboree radio show in Dallas, TX, c. 1962; radio DJ in Corpus Christi, TX, 1960s–70s; left Air Force, moved to Nashville, TN, 1976; won on The Gong Show, 1977; toured Britain extensively, 1977–80; performed at International Country Music Festival at Wembley Stadium, England, 1979; first appearance at Grand Ole Opry, 1979; regular spot on television show Hee Haw, 1982; opened his own theater in Branson, MO, 1987; performed six shows a week, nine months a year, 1987–96; returned to performing, 1997–99.
Awards: Spot on the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Walkway of the Stars, 1981; Music City News, Most Promising Male Vocalist, 1981.
Addresses: Website —Boxcar Willie Official Website: http://www.boxcarwillie.com.
he took a discharge from the Air Force. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and adopted the moniker Boxcar Willie based on a song he’d written in the mid-1960s.
As Boxcar Willie, Martin took on the persona of an affable hobo, traveling the railways, singing a song. His costume consisted of scuffed shoes, a worn-out hat, patched overalls, and a scruffy beard. Over the years he had perfected his talent of being able to mimic the sound of a train whistle. His hobo act won on an episode of the zany television variety program The Gong Show.
Martin’s biggest win came in 1977 when he was performing at the Possum Hollow Club in Nashville. Drew Taylor, a Scottish booking agent, was watching the show and was impressed. Taylor booked Martin for a tour of England. Throughout England and Europe, Boxcar Willie’s tribute to traditional country music and his kitschy persona appealed to crowds. Martin toured Europe through the remainder of the 1970s, becoming more and more popular. In 1979 his European popularity culminated with a standing ovation for his performance at the International Country Music Festival at Wembley Stadium in England.
By 1980 Martin had become one of the most successful country music performers in England. His records sold well, and he was also starting to pick up a following in his homeland. He had begun advertising his records in television commercials across America. His first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville was in 1979. In 1981 he was inducted as a member. That same year he earned a spot on the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Walkway of the Stars. He was even elected to be the World Ambassador for the Hobos at a hobo convention in Britt, Iowa. In 1982 he began making regular appearances on the country music variety show Hee Haw, and his only American top-40 hit, “Bad News,” made it to number 36 on the charts. In 1985 he appeared in the film Sweet Dreams, a movie about country singer Patsy Cline, in a bit part as a hobo.
By 1987 Martin’s star was beginning to fade again, though he was still a popular concert draw in the United States and Europe. Instead of receding completely into the shadows, Martin took up residence in Branson. He built a 900-seat theater, becoming one of the first entertainers to make Branson his regular venue. He performed six shows a week for nine months out of the year until 1996, when he was diagnosed with leukemia.
Leukemia slowed Martin down during his treatment. He stopped performing completely until he had finished his course of chemotherapy. Once he recovered from the effects of treatment, he returned to the stage. He went from his usual six shows a week to four, and reduced the show’s duration from two hours to 70 minutes. Martin was in full remission for almost two years before the cancer struck again. In 1999 his leukemia returned, and Martin died on April 12 in Branson.
Martin is survived by his second wife, Lloene Johnson, whom he met in 1962. Back then, he was playing in a club in Boise, Idaho, when she caught his eye. The two were married soon afterward. Lloene was a constant supportive element of Martin’s life. When he was focusing exclusively on music, she held down various office jobs to support the family. Together they had twin sons Larry and Lorry. Martin also has a daughter, Tammy, from a previous marriage.
Years of hard work and dedication led to what many would call the overnight success of Boxcar Willie. Martin was nearly 50 years old when he made it big, and he never seemed to forget his humble beginnings. He was kind and generous with fans and became one of the most dependable and well-liked entertainers in Branson. The BBC Radio 2 website wrote about him, “[He] really was a happy-go-lucky personality, very down-to-earth and always sporting a wide, infectious smile.”
Boxcar Willie, MCA, 1976.
Last Train to Heaven, Mainstreet, 1982.
The Collection (compilation), Castle, 1987.
Best Loved Favorites (compilation), Vanguard, 1989.
King of the Freight Train, MCA, 1992.
Boxcar Blues, Madacy, 1994.
Best of Boxcar Willie (compilation), Madacy, 1995.
Truck Drivin’Son of a Gun (compilation), Cleopatra, 1999.
New York Times, April 14, 1999, p. C27.
People, April 19, 1982, p. 89.
Shawnee News-Star, September 20, 1997.
“Boxcar Willie,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (November 8, 2002).
“Boxcar Willie,” BBC Radio 2, http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/country/artistdb/boxcarwillie.shtml (November 8, 2002).
“Boxcar Willie,” VH1.com, http://www.vh1.com/artists/az/boxcar_willie/bio.jhtml (November 8, 2002).
Boxcar Willie Official Website, http://www.boxcarwillie.com (November 8, 2002).
—Eve M. B. Hermann
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