The Broken Spoke Keeps Spinning

Mj 618_348_the broken spoke keeps spinning
Will van Overbeek / National Geographic Society / Corbis

The Broken Spoke honky-tonk spins in the slipstream of modern, fast-forward Austin, Texas, still keeping four-four time as everything and everybody else accelerates. Owner James M. White began the bar the day he mustered out of the Army in 1964, and it remains the proudly unvarnished beer joint it has always been. A half century later, James still runs the place with his wife, Annetta, serving up cold beer, classic country music, and the best chicken-fried steak in town. White says Annetta is in charge of the kitchen and the books, and he’s in charge of “BS and PR.” They’re both good at their jobs.

New condo developments now encroach on either side of the Spoke’s still unpaved parking lot and the red-painted, low-slung place looks increasingly like it wandered out of the Hill Country and got lost among the spit-shined developments. Step through the entrance (“Through This Door Pass the Best Country-Western Dancers In the World”) and it doesn’t matter much what year it is anymore. Two-stepping dancers revolve counterclockwise, and the beer signs glow neon. There is, as White proudly proclaims, no Grey Poupon on the premises.

Western Swing pioneer Bob Wills played here in the waning years of his career, and George Strait performed at the mic when he was just starting out. Today, hometown bands like Dale Watson, Alvin Crow & the Pleasant Valley Boys, and The Derailers keep the true country flame burning.

Someday, the Smithsonian will swoop down and put the whole shebang under glass. Until then, White will keep the beer flowing and the dancers two-stepping.

What’s been the biggest challenge in keeping a honky-tonk open for 50 years?
About the hardest thing I ever did was when I went up on my beer back in the Sixties. Beer was 25 cents a bottle in Austin for so long. Folks would slap a quarter down and say, “Gimme a beer.” There was one guy that we were kind of scared to tell him it had gone up to 30 cents, ’cause he was an old guy and couldn’t hear too well anyway, and he was already griping like hell all the time. Most of the time when he put a quarter down, we’d just go ahead and give him a beer, ’cause it wasn’t worth the damn hassle.

How did the place start out?
When I was in the Army in 1964, I’d been thinking about cowboys, something original, Texas, country. . . . I remembered this old movie called ‘Broken Arrow,’ and I thought I’d get a couple of old wagon wheels and knock a spoke out of each one of them, and that’s the way it started.

They can’t duplicate me because I never had a blueprint, just a simple little sketch of the front room. After the first year, we added the dance hall in back. Beer was two bits a bottle, and we’d pass the kitty two or three times a night and if I collected $20 I was lucky.

You booked Willie Nelson before he was “Willie.”
Willie Nelson and the Record Men. I booked him in 1967 for $800 a night. Back then, he had short hair and was clean-shaven. Most times when he played for me, he wore a turtleneck sweater or a sport coat.  Sometimes he’ll still come in and grab a chair and sit onstage and play, and people will dance by and say, “Damn that’s Willie Nelson!”

Likewise, George Strait.
Alvin Crow was booked to play one night, and he called me and said, “I have a wedding to play for, but I’ll be there after nine. In the meantime, I’ve got a real good little band from San Marcos called Ace in the Hole to open up, if that’s alright with you.” And the lead singer was George Strait. I liked the way they sounded, so I started booking them once a month from 1975 to 1982. At the time, I was giving the band 70 percent of the door, so some nights he would make $400–$500 a night.

How have people’s musical tastes changed over the years you’ve been open?
Every year in Austin they’ve got South By Southwest and a lot of young people come that like to rock and roll. We try to steer them into the more traditional boot-scootin’ country music. I like to hear a song where you can do a waltz or a two-step or a jitterbug. I don’t really like all the rap-talk stuff that much. You give me Ernest Tubb or Lefty Frizzell or Hank Williams.

What keeps you going?
I provide a place for people to have a good time, and I like to have a good time. I couldn’t have made it 50 years if I wasn’t having fun. People come here from all over the world – Israel or England or Russia. We teach ’em how to dance. Meeting interesting people and hearing about the rest of the world – every night it astounds me.   

Newcomers are going to be moving into these condos next door. What do you want them to know about the Spoke?
I want ’em to know it’s a family place; it’s a Texas thing. If you want a real, legitimate fun thing to do, you should walk across this dirt parking lot, past the big oak tree, and when you come in the door you’ll know darn well you’re not at Carnegie Hall. You’re at a real honky-tonk.

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