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.
Photo courtesy Dorothy
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
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.