Art&Seek presents This Week in Texas Music History. Every week, we’ll spotlight a different moment and the musician who made it. This week, Texas music scholar Gary Hartman remembers a singer who rode the rails to international stardom.
You can also hear This Week in Texas Music History on Friday on KXT and Saturday on KERA radio. But subscribe to the podcast so you won’t miss an episode. And our thanks to KUT public radio in Austin for helping us bring this segment to you. And if you’re a music lover, be sure to check out Track by Track, the bi-weekly podcast from Paul Slavens, host of KERA radio’s 90.1 at Night.
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Boxcar Willie, who was born Lecil Travis Martin in Sterrett, Texas, died on April 12, 1999. His father worked for the railroad, and during the Great Depression, young Lecil was deeply moved by seeing hundreds of destitute men living and riding in boxcars. Lecil performed on the Dallas radio show the “Big D Jamboree” at the age of only 17, but he took a break from music to serve in the Air Force following World War II. By the 1970s, he had restarted his musical career, appearing onstage as Boxcar Willie, dressed in ragged overalls and singing about life as a railroad hobo. During the 1980s, Boxcar Willie built a successful career performing throughout the United States and Great Britain. He also opened the popular Boxcar Willie Theater in Branson, Mo., until his death from leukemia at the age of 67.
Next time on This Week in Texas Music History, we’ll learn how one of the state’s most famous songs is based on an incident that may never have actually happened.