Larry Lujack grew up in Caldwell and graduated from Caldwell High School where he was an all-state quarterback. He went by Larry Blankenburg in those days. He changed to the nom de plume of Larry Lujack when he started working on Caldwell’s KCID radio in 1958.
The exact dates that Lujack worked on KGEM are uncertain, sometime between 1959 and 1963. That he was fired by station manager Bob Wiesenberger is more certain. Wiesenberger was not shy about telling the story. Lujack, always a little on the edge of decorum, allegedly made a joke on the air about the sheep he could see as he looked out the studio window. The joke involved Wiesenberger’s wife. Bob was not amused. Exit Lujack.
The dee jay eventually landed on his feet, ending up top-40 royalty in Chicago for 20 years on WLS. He wrote a book, which included the above-mentioned story, called Superjock, and was inducted into a couple of national broadcasting halls of fame. Lujack, who attended the College of Idaho and Washington State University, passed away in 2013 at the age of 73.
The other star to come out of KGEM was Marty Martin. He was probably the most famous country western star you never heard of.
Martin started working on KGEM in about 1963 and was on the air until 1970. He was all over the valley with remote broadcasts for the station and with his own dance band. He emceed everything that came along. For a time he hosted an Idaho talent show on KTVB called—get ready to cringe—“Idahoedown.”
In 1964 Martin was honored by the Grand Ole Opry as “Mr. Deejay USA.” He made several trips back to Tennessee and became friends with Willie Nelson. I’m name dropping here, because it was that name—Willie—that Martin eventually took as his stage name. He often told the story of driving along next to a rolling freight train and spotting a hobo who looked like Willie Nelson riding in one of the boxcars. The phrase Boxcar Willie came to mind. As soon as he could he put that in a song with the same title, bringing it out in 1970. It didn’t sell all that well, but it got some notice locally, and he adopted the name and persona.
Do you remember “The Gong Show”? Well, irritating as that memory might be, it was a break for the newly named Boxcar Willie when he won the competition. He sang well and dressed as a down-and-out hobo to complete the look, which fit the show perfectly.
Europe loved Boxcar Willie better than this country did. In the late 70s you’d see occasional TV ads for his albums touting his European popularity. That didn’t immediately translate into success in the USA, but he did have ten records hit the country Hot 100 between 1980 and 1984. The most successful of them was a song called “Bad News” that made it to number 36.
In 1981 he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Then, in 1985, he did something that was probably considered crazy at the time. He purchased a theater in Branson, Missouri and began performing there for ever-increasing crowds. He was one of the first to recognize the potential of Branson as a country music venue.
Boxcar Willie performed regularly Branson until his death there at age 67 in 1999.