Boxcar Willie

First published in Country Music People, December 1981 
Central Hall, Chatham, October 27, 1981

In a period of hardship, it is those who keep things simple, honest and straightforward that come out on top. Boxcar Willie drew a full house in Chatham. Some way or another, dedicated fans saved hard-earned money in order to see a performer who has much in common with everyday folk, a man who would quite happily sing the old songs all night if he was only allowed to.
I have criticised Boxcar in the past for sticking to the old time-honoured classics, but I reluctantly agree with his philosophy that you must give the fans what they want. The philosophy was carried throughout the show with Scottish band Colorado doing Trojan work during the evening. They opened the show mixing a bit of the old with the new songs from their latest album, TENNESSEE INSPIRATION. A tight band with a varied vocal line-up that possibly prevents Colorado from developing a distinctive sound of their very own.

The band stayed on stage to back up Skeeter Davis, a lady who had faded from the limelight in recent years, and on this showing you can understand just why. She has the look of a faded beauty queen, with her blonde hair and blank smile, and one could imagine her quite easily as a forlorn talent touring the most obscure night clubs in the North of England. She featured several of her major hits, including Silver Threads And Golden Needles, I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know, and Am I That Easy To Forget, plus a lively This Ole House and Rocky Top, but was at her best on Bette Midler’s The Rose. She delivered the ballad with power and intensity and the band was able to give her the support she deserved.

After the interval, Gerry Ford, who had ably compered the show, took up his guitar and, backed by Colorado, showed that he is one of Scotland's finest country vocalists. A nice version of Hank Williams’ overlooked Teardrop On A Rose, the religiously slanted Lord I’d Forgotten and Joe Allen’s The Great Mail Robbery, added to a neat, professional act. Then it was time for the star, and what a surprise! There was good ol’ Boxcar covered in sequins” Yes, he resembled a rhinestone cowboy, even down to his flashy boots. Could the hobo have deserted his roots? No way, because in seconds he discarded all the flash and finery to reveal the real Boxcar Willie, a man totally unchanged by all of his success. 

He opened with his famed train whistle, then took the audience through a series of train songs that covered Hank Williams (Lonesome Whistle), Jimmie Rodgers (Hobo Bill’s Last Ride), and of course the well-known Train Medley. Personally I could have done with more of Boxcar’s own songs (he is an excellent songwriter), but he varied the pace well with tunes such as an infectious Mule Train and the well-loved Kaw-Liga.

Throughout his set Boxcar demonstrated his entertainingly relaxed showmanship. He has learned to use facial theatrics as accents for the songs, a raised eyebrow to indicate absurdity, a tightened mouth to produce a gritty sound when called for. His music is rooted in the past and there’s little doubt that the man is simply masterful at bringing off the kind of tantalisingly familiar touches playing on the memory cells with wit and affection. His personality remains as appealing as ever and he had little difficulty in winning over the capacity crowd. He left the audience clamouring for more, and that, folks, is what it’s all about.