Country Music's Boxcar Willie Wrote His Own Ticket to Nashville
04/19/1982 at 01:00 AM EST
Boxcar Willie took a slow freight to stardom. He was born in 1931, which puts him up there among the geriatric set in country music. He saw 500 hours of air combat during the Korean War, any one of which could have ended his career, plus his life. Finally, in 1981, Nashville's respected Music City News named Boxcar (born Lecil Martin) the year's most promising male country singer. About time.
Without ever being part of the music business main line, he has built a nationwide following and is currently plugging his King of the Road album with ads on some 250 TV stations. King has surged past 1.5 million sales in the U.S., most by call-in or direct mail. (He sells some on tour too, out of cartons onstage.)
Boxcar, who now has his own traveling motor home and band, the Texas Trainman, is too busy to schedule a guest shot with Johnny Carson (he's been asked). He figures on more than 250 dates in '82 (at about $10,000 per). His single Bad News is climbing the country charts, and major labels that once snubbed him are hot for a deal. He's also played the Grand Ole Opry, and some of his hobo getups are in the Country Music Hall of Fame. "I've always done things backassward," says Boxcar. "But it works, don't it?"
Oldest of five children, Lecil grew up in trackside shacks and derelict farmhouses around Sterrett, Texas. His father was a migrant railroad worker. Entertainment, Boxcar recalls, was nine-cent cowboy movie matinees, family sings and Opry broadcasts over the radio, which was played Saturdays only to save batteries. Soon Lecil had a cheap guitar, and at 14 he earned $3 with it at a bar, only to come home to a belt-whuppin' by his father for playing an "evil joint."
Martin spent 22 years in the Air Force and Air National Guard as a flight engineer, then became a disc jockey in Boise, Idaho, where he met Lloene Johnson, now 38, his second wife. In 1970 they moved back to Texas. By 1976 he was a $275-a-week Corpus Christi deejay and hack guitar picker/ singer turned off by the slick pop sounds emanating from Nashville. He says, "They were forgettin' all the Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb and Ray Price songs."
To rectify matters, Martin invented his stage name and a hobo getup to match the wistful traveling music he prefers. He began playing honky-tonks for $35 a night, then won a Gong Show in 1977. A Scottish promoter heard him and booked him on the English tour that provided his breakthrough.
At 245 pounds, give or take a junk-food jag, Boxcar is hardly the cowboy stud type, but he's won over fans with elemental C&W and accessibility. "I once signed autographs for eight hours after a show," he says. "Some performers don't like autographs. I waited 40 years for someone to ask me for mine."
Boxcar, Miz Boxcar (as he calls Lloene), Tammy, 17, her daughter from a previous marriage, and their twins, Larry and Lorry, 12, live on a 33-acre farm outside of Tyler, Texas. Boxcar's few indulgences include a red Corvette for Lloene ("She helped us through some real rough times" as a data processor). She now runs his office from their home. "We don't do too much," he shrugs. "We live like we always did, but with money."