It’s pretty well accepted that geezers are fond of trains and I’m no exception. In fact, I’ve written several times about traveling by train and also about the connections that seem to have always existed between railroads and music, most recently focusing on the classic train named The City Of New Orleans. That relationship between trains and tunes would seem at first glance to be perfectly illustrated by a certain singer who billed himself as a singing hobo — but sometimes things aren’t what they seem.
Boxcar Willie became a country music star by taking a much different route than most, and part of his route was – at least figuratively – taken by train, even if his hobo persona was a little bogus. Born in Texas as Lecil Travis Martin, he did have a lifelong fascination with railroads — probably because his father worked on them, but also because trains were a part of almost everybody’s lives in those days.
Growing up in those pre-war years meant spending your childhood in an America where railroads were ubiquitous, and ruled almost every facet of transportation and cross-country freight movements. Young Lecil spent a lot of time around them and probably even hopped on a boxcar or two as boys did in those days, but he also gravitated toward music. In his teens, he tried his hand at country music, even performing on some regional radio shows, but it didn’t work out as a career and he next found himself in the Air Force.
After fulfilling his service obligation he again tried to make it in music, performing under the name Marty Martin and even managing to get an album recorded. Unfortunately, it didn’t do well, and he continued to struggle as a musician. As the years passed he was able to hang around by working as a DJ and writing music, although he did his share of odd jobs to pay the bills.
It was one of his compositions that led to a career-making decision. So the story goes, he was hanging around the trains one day in the 1960’s and one of the old-timers spotted a hobo, remarking, “There goes Willie”, a reference to a co-worker. Martin was inspired to write a song called “Boxcar Willie”, but didn’t do much with it at that time.
Into the 1970’s, he was still struggling to make it and decided to adopt the persona of Boxcar Willie. As he developed his act – including an amazingly realistic imitation of a train whistle – he also received a unexpected break. Filling in for a sick star one night in Nashville, he was spotted by a British talent scout, who correctly guessed that Willie’s hobo act and traditional country music would prove popular in Great Britain.
He was a solid success with British audiences, who were perhaps less concerned with authenticity than the American country music establishment at that time. Willie enjoyed the popularity for several years, but still itched to make it big in his home country. When he began building his record sales even higher in Great Britain by TV marketing, he realized that the same process might work in America.
Willie wasn’t the first to use TV marketing but he was one of the most successful, and his album King Of The Road, already a best seller in England, was soon selling briskly in America too. The traditionalists among the country music community might have cringed a little but the public voted with their credit cards, and by the 1980’s Boxcar Willie was so well established that he even appeared on Hee-Haw and the Grand Old Opry — the sure sign of acceptance in country music.
Ironically, the country music world eventually warmed to Willie because he performed songs that were closer to the traditional music of the past, while newer artists were moving closer and closer to a pop music sound. Although his hobo act was a little reality-challenged, Boxcar Willie had finally gained a measure of success and respect in country music, and until his death in Branson in 1999 was welcomed everywhere.