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  Texas : Features : Music : "Words and Music"

Boxcar Willie

by Dorothy Hamm
He would grow up to fly airplanes, but his fascination for the trains that roared past his boyhood home stayed with him all his life. Lecil Travis Martin, who would someday be known around the world as Boxcar Willie, was born in 1931 in Sterrett, Texas, a wide place in the railroad tracks between Dallas and Waxahachie. The son of a railroad section hand, who also farmed and played a fiddle, Martin learned to identify different trains by the sound of their whistle. And he learned to mimic them. The trade mark “train whistle” with which Boxcar Willie would eventually delight audiences around the world, was not an electronic special effect. That sound came from his throat…or perhaps somewhere down deep in his soul.
Boxcar Willie at sunset
Boxcar Willie

Photo courtesy
Dorothy Hamm
Martin was big man, ruggedly handsome with broad shoulders, strong opinions, deep emotions, and a smile that could light up a room. He was audacious and quite possibly unique. He was a man who, against the odds, carved a place for himself in the hard stone face of country music with his bare hands.

All his life, Martin loved to sing. He entered his first talent contest on WRR Radio in Dallas at age ten. Later, during 22 years in the Air Force — whether sitting on a flour sack in a mess hall kitchen in Nebraska with a young Mel Tillis, a barracks cot in Germany, a neighborhood bar many places, or as a disc jockey at radio stations from Ohio to Corpus Christi, Texas — he was always ready to sing at the drop of a guitar pick. But it wasn’t until 1976 that he would focus all his energy on becoming an entertainer.

The trigger, he would later say, came when a pop singer won one of the Country Music Association’s most prestigious awards.

“That may be show business,” he growled, “but it’s not country!”

He had seen plenty of hobos as a child growing up during the Depression years and he had been playing with the idea of a hobo character for some time. It all came together in his mind that night and he vowed he was going to win a country music award…as Boxcar Willie.

His timing could not have been worse. Nashville in the 1970s was quite busy trying to sweep country music’s rural roots under the rug as they “urbanized” their image, seeking more sophisticated sounds and looks. The powers-that-were in Nashville had no interest whatsoever in a middle aged singer who wore overalls and sang…good grief…did he say, train songs?

But Martin believed in the Boxcar character and in the power of traditional country music and if a frontal assault couldn’t open the castle doors in Music City, this old soldier would fall back, regroup and prepare a flank attack.

A recording contract with a major label and radio airplay are basic requirements for success in the music business. Even then, success is never a sure thing. Box became the success he had dreamed of and he won several country music awards though he never charted a hit record in the US, never recorded for a major label. He did however, sell millions of albums through a TV ad and he became a super star in Great Britain where his albums topped the charts earning 15 gold and 4 platinum albums. He received many awards, including International Entertainer of the Year and Album of the Year, from Great Britain’s Country Music Association.

In the US he became a regular on the long-running TV show, Hee Haw and appeared in the movies Sweet Dreams and Country Gold. In 1987 he had the foresight to buy a theater in the fledgling entertainment Mecca at Branson, Missouri. Perhaps his most personally gratifying achievement was when he became the 60th member of the Grand Ole Opry and was on a first name basis with one of his all-time heroes, Roy Acuff.

In 1981, a couple of months shy of his 50th birthday, Box gleefully ran up on stage at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville to receive Most Promising Male Artist honor at the Music City News Awards Show. They could have turned the stage lights off that night and operated with just the glow of Box’s beaming smile.

Only four years earlier during CMA Week, Box had waited hours for a chance to sing at open mic time at the Possum Holler club in Nashville. Well after midnight, after numerous others had sung their songs and sat down, Box came onstage and startled the weary audience right out of their yawns with the train whistle sound he had perfected in his youth beside the tracks in Texas. He followed with a hard-driving medley of train songs that earned him the first of many standing ovations he would receive as a performer. Johnnie High, who was in the audience that night, said Box was so overcome with emotion at the enthusiastic reaction that he had to wipe away tears.

Drew Taylor, a booking agent from Scotland, was impressed. He invited Box to open for Stella Parton on a tour of the British Isles starting in January of 1978. Then something happened and Stella had to cancel. Taylor decided to go with Box.

As the time to leave for the tour grew closer, in the midst of one of the coldest winters in many years, Box was lying in a hospital bed in Fort Worth, Texas with double pneumonia. Against doctor’s orders, he left his hospital bed, signed a waiver releasing the doctor of all responsibility, took an overnight bag filled with prescription meds and kept his date with destiny.

Boxcar died in Missouri in 1999 from leukemia.
© Dorothy Hamm
"Words and Music" Column
- August 16, 2005 column
Dorothy Hamm lives in Euless, Texas. She has been a freelance writer since the 1970s and interviewed Boxcar several times during his career.

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