Country music performer Boxcar Willie, was born Lecil Travis Martin in Sterrett, Texas, on September 1, 1931, the eldest son of Birdie Brown and Edna (Jones) Martin. Martin developed a love of country music and gospel music during his childhood through singing with his family while his father played the fiddle. He cultivated that love by listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. In his early teens he began performing in country music clubs near Dallas.
At the age of seventeen he garnered an appearance on the Big D Jamboree, a country music show broadcast by Dallas radio station KRLD. Despite reports to the contrary, however, Martin wrote that he never became a regular on the show. Another influence during his early years was his family's close connection to trains. Birdie Martin worked for the railroad in 1931, and the family lived in a small, company-owned house near the tracks. Frequently, Lecil's mother would give hobos who knocked on her door a meal in exchange for some small task such as sharpening her knives. After he was laid off during the Great Depression, Birdie occasionally traveled with some of these hobos, riding freight trains to find work.
Lecil himself rode the rails as a teenager. In 1949 he joined the United States Air Force, where he served as a flight engineer for more than twenty years. During his service, he occasionally worked in small clubs under the name Marty Martin. He also spent several years on military reserve status. For a short time he owned and operated Martin's Auto Repair Service in Midlothian. These years constituted a relatively unsettled period in the performer's life. He married and divorced several times and became the father of several children and stepchildren.
Eventually Martin's life grew more settled and he resumed his stage career. He met Lloene Davis Johnson in 1962, and eventually she became his fourth wife and they had four children. In the mid-seventies, he began appearing as Boxcar Willie, a singing hobo sporting striped overalls, a ragged jacket, and a crumpled fedora. Although this hobo persona came from his childhood memories of Texas, Martin stated that Boxcar Willie was "born" several years earlier in Lincoln, Nebraska. In a 1997 interview, he told an Associated Press reporter that he was waiting in Lincoln for a freight train to clear the tracks when he saw a hobo in a passing boxcar. The man reminded Martin of a friend named Willie Wilson. "I said, 'There's Willie in a boxcar,'" the singer stated, "and that's where [the idea] came from."
While on a California trip he reportedly performed as Boxcar Willie in a talent contest in San Jose and won first place and $150. In October 1979 he retired from the military in order to concentrate on his musical career. Soon, the hobo was also appearing regularly at several clubs in the Dallas–Fort Worth area. Martin's new look proved popular, especially in Britain, where he toured successfully several times. Through the 1980s he supplemented his repertoire of traditional country and gospel melodies with train songs such as "Wabash Cannonball" and his most popular tune, "Train Medley." His realistic imitation of a train whistle and his unique hobo persona helped him to build a large and devoted following in the United States and the United Kingdom. In 1981, after several successful appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, he became a member of the show. He also became a regular guest on the long-running television show Hee Haw. His King of the Road album, released in 1982, was Number 1 on the British country music chart for nineteen weeks and eventually sold nearly a million copies in the UK. Despite these successes, however, Martin never had a hit record in the United States.
In 1986 Martin and his wife Lloene bought a theater in Branson, Missouri. The Boxcar Willie Theater opened the following May, and Martin retired from the road. He continued to perform at the successful theater through 1998, often appearing in as many as six shows a week during the town's nine-month tourist season. Soon Martin expanded his business in Branson, adding a train museum and two motels. He was also very active in local charities for children. In 1996 he was diagnosed with leukemia. Although he enjoyed a brief remission after treatment he died of the disease on April 12, 1999, in Branson. He was buried in Ozarks Memorial Park in Branson.