Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Happy Tom Waits day! I'm a couple of hours away from headin' out to my local record store to pick up my official copy of Orphans. Waits fans, we're a little special aren't we? I'll have an official review/post about the set later....oh, say, somewhere between Christmas and New Year's, when you just know it's gonna show up in my top ten list of the Mountain's fave albums of the year. How's that for a preview?
And don't forget to mark your calendars for the day after Thanksgiving when we begin our daily (dear god) Holiday posts.
For now, though.
Lecil Travis Martin was a liar, a scam artist, and a media whore. And we love him dearly. Went by the name of Boxcar Willie, and if you paid any attention to the television in the late 70's and 80's youd've seen his commercials sandwiched between Freedom Rock and K-Tel disco compilations. Yep, that's the guy who loved America, trains, and regular folk values. Surely he had a huge serving of apple pie every night, tired from riding the rails all day, singing hobo songs to the weary and disposed travellers of ice boxes and empty coal chutes. Salt of the earth, with a train whistle's yodel.
Or maybe not.
In actuality, Willie was a military man, serving in the Air Force until the 70's, music being a second job, of sorts. Upon retiring from the Force, Willie pressed full-bore into his music career, perfecting his hobo persona for mass consumption. It worked, and Willie became a star. All those TV adverts didn't hurt his career much either, though they exemplified the fake authenticism that earned him much derision amongst the purists, a derision that exists to this day, as you'll note in the rhetoric of CMT's biography of him.
What's problematic about the anti-Boxcar Willie sentiment is that it builds itself on the realness of his persona. True, he was no hobo in his adult life. But he grew up around railroads, and there is some evidence that he was prone, in his youth, to attempts at hopping freight cars. His success at this is negligible, but it certainly points to a love of train and hobo culture that he carried into his future caricature. The fact that most performers adopt some type of persona separate from their real selves is accepted in general, but it seems that we pick and choose who we'll allow this leeway based on a random set of rules that boggle in their application. Really, how much time did Johnny Cash actually spend in jail? And I do not mean to compare Boxcar Willie with Johnny Cash in terms of talent or importance.
Really, Boxcar Willie isn't that important. He set the standard for nothing, unless you count the first Country artist to perfect the art of television hawking in the modern age. 'Course, back in the day big name Country artists hawked products and their own names regularly on radio shows, and barn dance transmissions.
But here's a catch. To many not in the stable of hoity toity music critics and experts, Boxcar Willie represented a return to real Country in the decades of Nashville's demise into overproduced swill and Urban Cowboy excess and blandness. What they heard when they heard Willie sing was the sound of yesterday, a nostalgic twanged twinge in the traditional heart. How genuine it was didn't really matter. It certainly sounded more genuine than, say, Alabama. And who knows how many people who weren't really Country fans took Willie's advice and checked out Hank Williams, or Jimmie Rodgers, or Dave Dudley, or Lefty Frizzell. Boxcar Willie may fail the Greil Marcus test of importance, context, and obscurity masquerading as relevant, but he certainly made a convert of this feller as an impressionable lad listening to WWVA and dreaming of going to Jamboree in the Hills. It was also Boxcar Willie who fell me into love with the train song. To quote Mr. Westerberg out of context, "I'm in love,with that sound."
So. Boxcar Willie isn't important. He's not revolutionary. He's not genuine according according to those who are experts.
But he's one hell of a lot of fun. He's better than you think he is. He's got a Country voice that makes you want to sing along, makes you want to hop the rail. And at the end of the day, after all the term papers and doctoral theses have been written, aren't those the most important things?
Boxcar Willie: Big Freight Train Carry Me Home (mp3)
Boxcar Willie: Hobo Heaven (mp3)
Boxcar Willie: Boxcar Blues (mp3)
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