BRANSON, Mo. - BoxCar Willie, whose gentle country voice and songs of life on the road evoked memories of a time when hobos watched America pass by from the door of a freight car, died yesterday of leukemia. He was 67.
The singer died at home, surrounded by his family and close friends, family spokeswoman Chisai Childs said.
BoxCar Willie was diagnosed with leukemia three years ago. After a brief remission, the disease returned last year.
Family friend Dick Ringler said BoxCar Willie knew he was losing the battle since being hospitalized for two weeks in February, but never mentioned it.
"He told me how tired he was, and I had to help him get out of his chair, which embarrassed him," Ringler said.
Until his health began to fail, he had performed as many as six shows a week at the BoxCar Willie Theatre in this Ozark mountain town, which is home to dozens of music theaters and scores of performers.
He was more than one of Branson's most famous performers; he was also one of its most beloved. As a member of the Taney County Child Welfare Board, he raised thousands of dollars for needy children, Childs said, as well as $40,000 a year for police programs to fight crime and drugs.
Born Lecil Martin in Sterrett, Texas, in 1931, BoxCar Willie was the son of a railroad man who used to play his fiddle on the porch while his son played guitar.
By his teens he was performing in jamborees all over the state, but he gave up show business to enlist in the Air Force, where he spent 22 years.
After retiring from the service he returned to performing, and by the 1970s had developed the singing-hobo persona, complete with overalls, a battered old hat, worn suit jacket and two days growth of beard.
He said he took the BoxCar Willie look and name after seeing a freight train pass him by one day in Lincoln, Neb., as he was stuck in traffic.
"And there was an old boy sitting on a boxcar, dressed the way I dress today, and he looked just like a buddy of mine named Willie Wilson," he told The Associated Press in 1997. "I said, `There's Willie in a boxcar,' and that's where it came from."
He was devoted to singing and promoting old-fashioned country music, including the sorrowful train songs for which he was best known. He never had a hit single, but his albums sold well and he built a loyal following that made him one of the most popular performers in Branson, where he operated a motel and train museum as well as his theater.
Although Roy Clark became the first nationally known entertainer to put his name on a Branson theater in 1983, BoxCar Willie, who arrived three years later, liked to boast that he was the first big name to live and work there year-round.
He counseled newly arrived performers on what worked and what didn't in a conservative, heartland town visited by millions of tourists each year. He fumed from time to time about performers who left Branson, saying it wouldn't last.
Mayor Lou Schaefer has ordered flags throughout Branson to be flown at half-staff until the funeral, which Childs said would be Saturday or Sunday.