Country Heritage: Lecil Martin, King of the Hobos (1931 – 1999)
It is unlikely that any modern country performer will ever have a career quite like that of Lecil Travis “Boxcar Willie” Martin (1931-1999). Dressed in the attire of a railroad hobo and blessed with a unique ability to imitate the sounds of train whistles, Boxcar Willie carried on the grand tradition of country music on the Grand Ole Opry without ever having a hit record. While comedians, such as Mike Snider, occasionally became Opry members without having hit records on their resume, the induction of Boxcar Willie as an Opry member in 1981 marked the last time a singer was inducted without a hit (excluding the later induction of Beecher Ray “Bashful Brother Oswald” Kirby, who had been performing on the Opry stage for over 50 years as part of Roy Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys).
Born near Ovilla, Texas, Boxcar Willie had a career behind him before finding real success as a country music star–this after turning 50 years old. Although he adopted a railroad persona for his stage act, unlike Jimmie “The Singing Brakeman” Rodgers, one of his idols, Boxcar Willie never worked on the railroads, although his father had been a railroad man, for whom Jimmie Rodgers had worked. Like many of his generation, Willie loved the railroads and ran away from home to ride the trains as a lad and like many from small towns and rural settings, he loved country music, particularly the then-current songs of Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Merle Travis. As a teenager, he would perform under his given name, eventually becoming a regular on the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, Texas. In 1949 he served in the the United States Air Force and became a pilot and flight engineer for the B-29 Super Fortress during the Korean War. Both during his Air Force Career (which, according to some sources, lasted in some capacity until 1976) and after he left the service, he performed in clubs and on local radio shows. In the late 1950s, he began performing as Marty Martin. During this period he issued an album titled Marty Martin Sings Country Music and Stuff Like That, which he sold at live performances.
In 1962, Willie met his life-long love, Lloene. They married shortly thereafter and had four children.
The name Boxcar Willie apparently has its origins in a comment he made about an employee named Willie Wilson. According to one version of the story, the singer was sitting at a railroad crossing when a freight train passed by with a fellow who resembled Wilson sitting down in an open boxcar. Willie wrote a song titled “Boxcar Willie” and over time, adopted the song title as his stage name.
In 1976, Willie became a full-time entertainer. His big break came while he was playing at the Silver Saddle in Grand Prairie Texas. The agent for George Jones saw him and invited him to perform at George’s club in Nashville, The Possum Hollow. During a performance in Nashville, Willie was spotted by Drew Taylor, a Scottish booking agent who thought that the singer’s very traditional approach to country music would be well received by British audiences. This proved quite true, with Willie appearing at venues in Britain throughout the late 1970s, culminating in a performance at the Wembley International Country Music Festival in 1979. This performance, seen live by thousands and by many more on British television, established Boxcar Willie as the “King of the Hobos.” His album, King of the Road, became a huge success in England, reaching number five on the album charts aided by a clever television ad campaign which sold the record through the mail.
A similar advertising campaign was run in the United States for a double album set, with similar results (similarly successful telemarketing campaigns also worked for Zamfir and Slim Whitman). The end result was that Boxcar Willie became a successful recording artist selling millions of albums but without any real hit singles. Although he charted 10 singles, only his cover of “Bad News” cracked the top forty, reaching #36 in 1982.
The success of the television advertising campaign propelled Boxcar Willie to Grand Old Opry membership, where he became enormously popular with Opry patrons and fellow artists alike. After Roy Acuff’s death in November 1992, Boxcar Willie became the standard-bearer for traditional country music at the Opry, frequently performing classic Acuff songs such as “Wabash Cannonball” and “Night Train to Memphis.”
In 1985, Willie moved to Branson (while still remaining a member of the Grand Old Opry) where he purchased Highway 76 (a/k/a Country Music Boulevard) which he renamed the Boxcar Willie Theater. Willie operated successfully from his theater for the next thirteen-plus years. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with leukemia in late 1996. He continued to perform at his theater on a limited basis until his death on April 12, 1999 at the age of 67.
The Boxcar Willie Inn built by Boxcar Willie in Branson, Missouri still bears his name today.
For a fellow without any substantial radio airplay, Boxcar Willie issued quite a few albums in his lifetime and made guest appearances on numerous albums of other artists, most notably on the Hank Williams Jr. album The Pressure Is On. Hank referenced Boxcar Willie by name in the song lyrics of “Rambling In My Shoes.” Willie contributes vocals and train whistle sounds to the track.
Column One Records issued four LPs from 1977-1980. These were Boxcar Willie (1977), Daddy Was A Railroad Man (1978), Sings Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers (1979), and Take Me Home (1980). Other than the Hank/Jimmie tribute, these albums are mostly original material, much of it written by the artist himself.
The album that started the good times rolling for Boxcar Willie was King of The Road (1980), issued in Great Britain on Warwick Records. In the United States, the over-the-counter version issued on the Main Street label sold enough copies to reach #54 on the country charts but this does not include the estimated 2 million copies sold via television. If Billboard had possessed the ability then to track mail order sales, this particular album might have reached #1 on both the pop and country charts. Main Street issued several other albums, some of which reached album chart mid-levels. Unlike King of The Road (1980), which was all cover material, Last Train To Heaven (1982, BB #27), Best of Boxcar (1982, BB #34), and Not The Man I Used To Be (1984, BB #35) contained more original material.
Much of Box’s vinyl product has been reissued on CD. His only major label recording was for Dot Records, titled simply Boxcar Willie. It is all original material, including two duets with Willie Nelson and one with Carol Lee Cooper and has been reissued on the MCA label.
Probably the most interesting CD was Rocky Box, a 1993 CD recorded with the roots-rock group the Skeletons (who sometimes called themselves the Morrells). This album features a mix of 50s rockabilly and rock ‘n roll hits, plus an interesting take on “Achy Breaky Heart,” a recent (very minor) hit for the Marcy Brothers and then a monster for Billy Ray Cyrus.
A wide range of products can be purchased at his website www.boxcarwillie.com which features 18 album titles available on CD & Cassette, plus videos and souvenirs. New for 2015 is a CD featuring Gunter Gabriel, Roy Acuff and Willie Nelson on some previously unreleased recordings