Now let me tell you, brother
It just ain’t so
There ain’t no easy life
For a bored hobo
I got the boxcar blues
Though the tunes of iconic country music star Boxcar Willie may be laced with the profound knowledge and vehemence of a born-and-bred hobo, the singer was anything but. He may openly lament the hard life of bored hobos in his famous melody, “Boxcar Blues,” but despite his seasoned demeanor and well-worn lyrical pronouncements, Boxcar Willie knew a lot less about the hard-knock life of a vagrant and a lot more about the taxing, uphill journey of a performer.
It’s safe to say that Boxcar Willie, born Lecil Travis Martin, never set foot in a boxcar; he did, however, grow up enamored with tales of his father’s time as a hobo, cultivating a personal affection for the romantic vision of jumping trains, the haunting whistle of a far-away locomotive his favorite, lonely lullaby. His childhood also engendered a passion for country music, the tunes of the genre’s progenitors, like Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, on constant rotation in the Martin household. Though Martin began performing country music in his teens, it wasn’t until much later in life that he gained success by incorporating his love for the railroad into his passion for music.
Martin’s first gigs as a gangly teenager found him onstage at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, Texas. Though he became a type of regular at the performance, young Lecil Travis Martin found neither fame nor accolades on the worn floors of the Big D Jamboree. In his early twenties, frustrated with the snubful life of a performer, Martin dropped his guitar and traded in his cowboy boots for military-issued ones when he joined the Air Force.
But, like many young Americans, Martin found that the military wasn’t for him; the warm glow of stage lights beckoned to Martin, and he left the Air Force to pursue a career in music once again. This time he affected a new stage name—Marty Martin—but success once again evaded him. Martin performed blue-collar jobs throughout the day, slipping on his white-collared shirt and boots for nighttime gigs across the South. In 1958, the aspiring star released his first album, Marty Martin Sings Country Music + Stuff Like That, but it was largely ignored, forcing Martin to continue scraping pennies and strumming at smaller venues.
It was in the mid-sixties that Martin unveiled his ticket to fame, although he certainly didn’t recognize it as such at the time. According to legend, Martin sat leisurely along a set of railroad tracks, watching the trains slide by, when he spotted a hobo who looked like a chief boom operator at one of his venues by the name of Willie Wilson. Martin smiled and declared, “There goes Boxcar Willie,” the sound of which inspired him to write the tune “Boxcar Willie.” It wasn’t until years later that Martin realized the accessibility and charm of the icon. In the early ’70’s, he decided to give the industry one last shot, moving to Nashville and taking on the alter-ego of his lyrical creation, Boxcar Willie.
Martin completely invested himself in his new persona. Before ascending the stage, Boxcar Willie donned a patched pair of overalls, dirtied his face to a sooty, filthy complexion, and topped it off with a floppy, frayed hat. His stage act became more of a kitschy and exaggerated performance of a hobo, his singing and music fading to the background. Yet, still, Martin struggled, until finally, in 1976, his moment arrived.
When George Jones was suddenly taken ill and couldn’t perform his gig at a Nashville club, the desperate agents phoned Boxcar Willie. Martin, floundering without success, jumped at the opportunity. It was at this show that a Scottish booking agent by the name of Drew Taylors first saw Boxcar Willie. Recognizing an opportunity, Taylors immediately recruited Martin and brought him back to the UK.
Where Americans found Boxcar Willie to be overdone, folks in England found him to be raucously hilarious as well as a talented performer, the personification of Americana that pulled at their heartstrings—and wallets. Boxcar Willie found almost immediate success throughout the UK, his popularity growing through the ’70’s and climaxing in 1979, when he received a standing ovation at the International Country Music Festival at Wembly. By the end of 1980, he was the most successful country music star in all of England. Boxcar Willie’s stardom followed him back home to America. In 1981 Boxcar Willie became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, his years of struggle on the country music circuit, his rebuttals and dismissals, seemingly forgotten.
In 1985, Boxcar Willie settled in Branson, Missouri, where he once again set a unique and unprecedented course for himself. Though Branson was already well on its way to becoming the entertainment capital of America, Boxcar Willie was the first major celebrity to settle in the area and start his own theater, the Boxcar Willie Theater. The theater opened on Highway 76, what would come to be known as Country Music Blvd. Boxcar Willie’s investment in Branson encouraged other stars to do the same, essentially laying the first stones for a modern Branson. Boxcar Willie continued to perform at his own theater until his death from leukemia in 1999. But Boxcar Willie’s legacy lives on in Branson, in his theater, museum, and two motels, and in the lonely sound of the train whistles that drift lazily across the Ozarks.
Hear Boxcar Willie at the Height of His Popularity in Europe in 1979