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Obituary: Boxcar Willie

FOR LECIL Travis Martin, a.k.a. Boxcar Willie, Saturday 14 April 1979 was a defining moment in his career. Handed a bare 15-minute slot at the 11th International Festival of Country Music at Wembley that Easter, the 47-year-old Texan brought the house down, propelling himself instantly toward a kind of superstardom.

British country fans were at the time amongst the most conservative anywhere, favouring a traditionalism rooted in the Forties and Fifties which seemed perfectly in tune with his style. His heroes - Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and Lefty Frizzell - were their heroes; his crowd-pleasing original numbers like "I Love the Sound of a Whistle" and the recitation "Papa's Old Pocket Watch" were firmly rooted in the past; and his hobo persona too evoked that earlier age. As a result he became perhaps the most popular country act on this side of the Atlantic, a welcome buffer against the often soupy MOR excesses then prevalent in much of the music.

Boxcar Willie's stage name came courtesy of a hobo he had once seen on a passing train; the man reminded him of his friend and fellow performer Willie Nelson. Boxcar Willie's stage attire the overalls, jacket and battered hat gave his live appearances an apt and memorable visual aspect whilst his imitative train whistle itself became much (and often badly) imitated. The proud owner of his own train museum, he later became World Ambassador for the Hobo Foundation.

Trains were in Lecil Martin's blood: his fiddle-playing father worked the railroads and the family lived in a wooden shack just feet from the tracks. Years later, he would remember those times in songs like "The Old Iron Trail". He was exposed to the music of many of the major country acts of that era and found himself particularly drawn to the discs of the man known as "The Singing Brakeman", Jimmie Rodgers. In 1942, aged only 10 years old, Martin made his radio debut.

Performing as Marty Martin, he played the local bars and honky tonks, sharing gigs with the great Lofty Frizzell and even appearing on Dallas's answer to the Grand Ole Opry, the Big D Jamboree. But his success in the music business proved erratic and he also worked as a refrigerator salesman, a bowling alley attendant and for many years as a pilot with the US air force. Few of his British fans realised that his first visit to this country had been as an airman back in the Fifties when he flew B-36s at Upper Hayford and Burtonwood airbases.

By 1960 he was again performing professionally, even appearing on his own daily television show in Lincoln, Nebraska, but it would be another 15 years before his transformation into Boxcar Willie; a personal and angry response to the influx into country music of middle-of-the-road acts like John Denver and Olivia Newton-John.

In 1977, whilst working at George Jones's Possum Hollow Club in Nashville, he was spotted by a Scottish promoter, Drew Taylor, who booked him for the first of four tours over the next 18 months. It was on the strength of these that he was invited to perform at Wembley in 1979.

Following his "sudden" rise to superstardom, Boxcar Willie became a regular visitor to these shores and began to receive greater attention back home. His 1981 album King of the Road sold two million copies and "Ramblin' in My Shoes", a duet with Hank Williams Jnr from Williams's album The Pressure Is On, made his name with the redneck crowd. He was among the nominees for the Country Music Association's Horizon Award that year and more importantly was invited to join the cast of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream. On its stage he performed alongside several of his idols, notably the Opry stalwart Roy Acuff, and continued to appear there until quite recently. In 1985 he enjoyed an effective cameo as a jailbird hobo in the Patsy Cline biopic Sweet Dreams.

A series of best-selling albums, among them Last Train To Heaven (1982), for which he received a gold disc, continued to prove that there was a demand for traditional no-frills country music, but paradoxically it was the emergence of new traditionalists like Randy Travis and the Sweethearts of the Rodeo in the mid-Eighties which was to see his music marginalised. They too looked back, but in a progressive way, managing to avoid the element of pastiche and a over-readiness to resort to cover versions which marked the poorest of Boxcar Willie's work. He continued to record but his albums, including Falling in Love (1988) and The Spirit of America (1991), were met with both critical and commercial indifference.

In 1987 he moved to Branson, Missouri, a small town in the Ozarks, which subsequently became something of an entertainment Mecca. Millions now flock annually to watch family-oriented shows by performers like Andy Williams, the Osmonds, Ray Stevens and Roy Clark. "Boxie" proved one of the town's most durable and popular stars, often performing six or more shows a week in his own dinner-theatre.

Lecil Travis Martin (Boxcar Willie), country singer and songwriter: born Sterrett, Texas 1 September 1931; married (two daughters); died Branson, Missouri 12 April 1999.