BoxCar Willie, 67, whose late-night record commercials teamed with Slim Whitman's to warm up a generation of insomniacs for "Flight" and the "Inspirational Hour," died April 12 of leukemia at his home in Branson, Mo.
"Box," as he was known familiarly around Branson, which he called home after opening the BoxCar Willie Theatre there in 1986, was born Lecil Travis Martin in Sterrett, Tex. He grew up with a railroad-man father who sympathized with the hobos who came by on freight trains looking for work during the Depression.
As a boy, he learned guitar and toured the state, playing jamborees and fairs, but then joined the Air Force, where he spent the next 22 years, retiring in 1970 and picking up a neglected performing career.
He was a straight country and western singer, with an ear for the train-whistle quality that marked so much of the work of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. He soon transformed himself into BoxCar Willie, with bib overalls, a striped or checked shirt, bindle bag and slouch hat and, of course, 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, including "Ramblin' Man," "King of the Freight Train," "Waiting for a Train" and "Boxcar Blues." He adopted his name in 1975 from a song he wrote early on, "Boxcar Willie."
He never had a hit single, but his albums sold well, particularly 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, who performed with his father in the BoxCar Theatre at Branson.
BoxCar Willie, while a member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1981, was never a serious contender for top country stardom, but he had a large European following, and the theater in Branson, which seats just under 1,000, had been full every night since it opened in 1986, according to his son, who sang duets and appeared in skits with his father in the theater.
The last BoxCar Willie show was Dec. 11. BoxCar Willie sang "Wabash Cannonball," his signature offering and his son's favorite, and the two of them did a duet of "Bad Case of Ramblin' in My Shoes."
Survivors include his wife, Lloene, and his son, both of Branson, and three daughters, Paula Lane, in the Army in Korea, and Tammy LaCore and Lorrie Brown, both of Branson.
BoxCar Willie had three previous marriages.
CAPTION: BoxCar Willie took his name from a song he wrote early in his career.