He's universally known as the "World's Favorite Hobo." He is Box Car Willie. Box Car Willie has 15 Gold and 4 Platinum albums to his credit. In 1981, he became the sixtieth member of the Grand Ole Opry. Not just limiting himself to music, Box Car made film appearances in the movie Sweet Dreams (based on the life of Patsy Cline) and the TV movie Country Gold with Loni Anderson.
In 1987, Box Car Willie bought a theater in Branson, Missouri and has been performing to enthusiastic crowds ever since.
We caught up with Box Car Willie at his theatre in Branson.
Q - Are you the guy who started this whole Branson, Missouri phenomenon we keep hearing about?
A - (Laughs). Well, I had a hand in it.
Q - Was your theatre the very first one in Branson?
A - No, it wasn't the first theatre here, but I was the first major artist to buy a theatre and move here.
Q - What did you see in Branson that other people didn't?
A - Well, the theatre that I bought was already built. I had been out on the road doing Fair circuits and I was very successful at that. I figured if they'll come to Fairs, they'll come to Branson to see me.
Q - Why Branson? Why not St. Louis?
A - This is a resort area here, not to say that St. Louis is not, but it's a family resort area.
Q - If you were the first major artist in Branson, who was there before you?
A - Local people.
Q - And after you, everybody showed up.
A - Yeah, oh my God, I think there's been 50 something (people) follow me here. (Laughs). I think there's 48 theatres and something like 84 acts.
Q - Your theatre holds how many people?
A - 900.
Q - Why did you go with that number? Why not build a 3,000 seat theatre?
A - Well, I can build on my 900 seat theatre when we get 600 people and it looks like we got a crowd. Those people that got those 3000 seat theatres, when they get 600 people in there, it looks like they got 300 people in there.
Q - The more theatres that are built in Branson, the more competitive it gets, right?
A - Oh yeah, absolutely.
Q - Yet, certain performers will say people come to Branson to take in all the shows.
A - Oh, they do. There's people that come here and stay five days and see maybe 10 or 12 shows.
Q - You also run 2 motels and an airplane and railroad museum?
A - Yeah.
Q - I can understand the railroad museum, but why the airplane museum?
A - 'Cause I spent 22 years in the Air Force before I became Box Car Willie.
Q - Okay. So why are you in the motel business?
A - Well, I figured it would be a good investment you know. The year before I built my two motels, there was just no vacancy in the existing motels. But, when I started my motels, I didn't know that about 40 other people were starting motels of their own too. (Laughs).
Q - You got some competition there.
A - We got some stiff competition.
Q - You actually rode the rails when you were a young guy.
A - Right, when I was 15, 16 years old.
Q - Did you think of yourself as a hobo back then?
A - No. It was strange. It was just a way for me to get from one place to another. I never thought about it, being a hobo or a bum, anything like that. (Laughs).
Q - Where'd you start your journey?
A - Right south of Dallas, Texas, a town called Sterrett.
Q - Where did you go from there?
A - Oh, out west, Abilene, Texas which is about 200 miles away, or down east Texas which is another 200 miles the other direction.
Q - What would you do?
A - I'd visit my grandma and my grandpa and pick cotton, chop cotton.
Q - You did that for how long?
A - Two years. Two summers.
Q - What is the difference between a hobo and a bum?
A - Well, I'm glad you asked that question. To me hobos were people who used the rails as a means of transportation from one job to another. They just don't ride the boxcars anymore. They'll either hitch-hike or they've got a car of their own. Back in the '40s, we didn't have the benefits if a family man quit his job that he has today, unemployment and that stuff.
Q - Between the time you left the Air Force and 1976 when you gained fame as Box Car Willie, what were you doing with yourself?
A - I was playing music, trying to make Box Car Willie famous. (Laughs).
Q - You were based in one city?
A - Yeah, Arlington, Texas.
Q - How did you get the attention of the movers and shakers in the movie business?
A - It first happened overseas, in England. I was doing a show in Nashville. I was working for George Jones. This guy came to see me from England. He said that's just what we need in England, and he was right. I was an instant success over there. That caused the people in the States to take notice. It was kind of a coming in the back door type situation.
Q - You had a record deal at that time?
A - Yeah. I had one over here with Column One Records but we didn't have hardly any distribution. It was hard to get the disc jockeys to play my records. But, the English started playing 'em. That kind of kicked everybody in gear over here. Then they put it on the television, the TV direct marketing picked it up, and the rest of it is history.
Q - How many albums did you end up selling thanks to that TV spot?
A - Well, the one album sold 3.2 million copies.
Q - Was there a follow-up?
A - We had a follow-up that sold about three quarters of a million.
Q - I imagine if I walked into the theatre I could buy your tapes, t-shirts etc.
A - You certainly can. Whistles, hats, bandannas and Box Car Willie dolls, buttons and badges of all kinds.
Q - You probably record all of your tapes that you sell at the theatre.
A - That's the way we're doing it.
Q - A few years back, you were interviewed along with Roy Clark by Morley Safer of 60 Minutes. Mr. Safer figured that if you did X amount of shows per month you could make a million dollars. You and Roy looked at each other and just roared with laughter.
A - (Laughs)
Q - Like you're doing now. You guys acted like a million dollars was nothing to make in a month, that there was far more than that to make.
A - Well, that's not true though.
Q - You can make more or you can make less. Which is it?
A - You can make less. Your overhead has got to be figured in there you know. Just figure it out, if I ran full 6 nights a week...
Q - Which is impossible?
A - Which is impossible for anybody. That's 900 seats for 6 nights, that's 5,400 seats.
Q - What do you charge to get in?
A - Eighteen dollars. Simple mathematics will tell you what we can do in a week's time, if you ran full. But I don't mind saying my theatre's been running half full, just like everybody's has.
Q - Why would that be?
A - There's just so many shows here now.
Q - Lee Greenwood believes Sevierville, Tennessee will overtake Branson as the next hot spot for Country music. Do you buy that?
A - Nothing's going to replace Branson because we draw from a different market than Sevierville, Tennessee does. People from Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, they're gonna come to Branson rather than drive all the way to Sevierville, Tennessee. We get very few people from California. If somebody opens a theatre up in California, it doesn't mean they're going to replace Branson. They're just gonna pull from people around California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada and those places.
Q - And because Branson was first, it will survive.
A - That's right. Servierville, Tennessee pulls from the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia. We don't get all that many people from those areas.
Q - Emmylou Harris was on Charles Grodin's CNBC TV show recently and talked about her experiences in Branson. She said "Branson is kind of like a holiday place with a lot of miniature golf courses and a lot of all you can eat buffets and a lot of motels." She found audiences saying, "Okay. What can we see in between the lunch buffet, the miniature golf tournament and the bungee jumping? They're not really coming to see the performer. What do you think Box Car?
A - Well, she couldn't draw people here. If it wasn't for the shows, you could just wipe this spot off the map. Buffet? My God, you can get a buffet down the street.
You've probably got 10 buffets in your hometown. I don't know where Emmylou got her information from. She didn't do very well when she was here, as far as drawing people.
Q - How many shows a week are you doing at that theatre of yours?
A - Seven. I do a matinee on Tuesdays.
Q - Do you have another performer with you?
A - Yeah. Ferlin Husky does a morning show at my theatre.
Q - You got everything covered then!
A - Yeah. (Laughs).
Q - How many months out of the year are you working?
A - I work 9 months here at the theatre. I go to England and work for 30 days, then I do a 30 day tour, then I take 30 days vacation. Then it's right back to Branson again.
Q - Do you miss the road?
A - I spent 15 years on that road. I did hundreds and hundreds of Fairs and concerts and nightclubs and smokey honky-tonks, drunk's hanging all over you. I don't want anymore of that. I'm glad I've got a beautiful, smoke-free theatre here. My sound is the same every night. The acoustics are the same every night. I'm fresh and rehearsed when I walk out on that stage. I can leave my theatre, drive 30 minutes and I'm home. I'm in my own bed. I don't have to get on that bus and load all that equipment up.
Note: Boxcar Willie was born Lecil Travis Martin. He died of leukemia on April 12, 1999 at the age of 67.