Boxcar, as good as he is as an impersonator, is best known as an entertainer—seriously loved to make people laugh. Another thing that he became famous for was his train whistle.
“I once signed autographs for eight hours after a show. Some performers don’t like autographs. I waited 40 years for someone to ask me for mine.”
Around Branson, his home after opening the BoxCar Willie Theatre there in 1986, “Box” is his familiar name. In Sterett, Texas, BoxCar Willie is Lecil Travis Martin—his original name. A railroad-man father raised him who had a heart for the hobos who came by on freight trains during the Depression.
At a young age, he learned how to play the guitar. He basically grew up on the road touring the state and playing jamborees and fairs. Later, he joined the Air Force where he spent 22 years of his life. After retiring in 1970, he went back and picked up his neglected performing career.
He was a straight country and western singer. Also, he has a great ear for the train-whistle quality that marked so much of Hank Williams’ and Jimmie Rodgers’ work. Soon, he transformed himself into BoxCar Willie. He wore a silly costume—bib overalls, striped or checked shirt, bindle bag and slouch hat, whiskers and worn-out shoes.
During a career that spanned more than a quarter of a century, he recorded at least 15 gold and four platinum albums. His success in the music industry includes: “Ramblin’ Man”, “King of the Freight Train”, “Waiting for a Train” and “Boxcar Blues”. He adopted his name from a song he wrote in 1975, “Boxcar Willie”.
He never had a hit single, but his albums sold well to late-night TV watchers. The last TV album released by Heartland Music in 1992 was “Best Loved Favorites”. According to his son, Larry Martin, this was his last.
BoxCar Willie, while a member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1981, was never a serious contender for top country stardom. He had a large European follower. The theater in Branson, which seats just under 1,000, had been full every night since it opened in 1986. This is according to his son who sang duets and appeared in skits with his father in the theater.
On December 11, Willie did his last BoxCar Willie show. As the closing, BoxCar Willie sang “Wabash Cannonball”, his signature offering and his son’s favorite. The father and son also did a duet of “Bad Case of Ramblin’ in My Shoes”.