When owner James White began building Austin’s beloved honky-tonk bar Broken Spoke on September 25, 1964, he had no blueprint, little money and only a handful of tools.
The bar and dance hall has since welcomed millions of customers, taught the Texas two-step to tens of thousands, hosted some of the biggest names in country music on its bandstand and become a local gem and international icon – all within the same structure White and his friends built with their bare hands more than five decades ago.
Destinations Unlocked:Let our travel expert Stefano help you find your perfect Culture trip
Looking for an expert's perspective?Uncover my top 3 recommended places from each continent on the map.
1. GuatemalaAn express adventure for those with limited time off. Prepare yourself incredible experiences. You will hike a volcano, visit mayan temples and witness a ceremony and take in beautiful colonial Antigua.
2. BelizeA quick trip not too far away for those seeking a relaxing mini break. You will have plenty of free time to relax but also some awesome activities to experience the rainforest and the caribbean sea.
3. MexicoAn exciting mini trip exploring the lesser known colonial towns of central Mexico. This is hte perfect trip for someone with limited time off and still wants to turn on explorer mode and do something different.
1. EcuadorA remarkable 8 days adventure through the Andes and the Amazon rainforest. The best choice for adventure seekers wishing to visit the 2 most iconic areas of South America, in only 1 week and no flights.
2. PeruAn alternative itinerary to classic Peru, from Cusco to Arequipa. This itinerary is great combination of highlights Cusco and Machu Picchu with the lesser known Arequipa and Colca Canyon.
1. ItalyThe ultimate Italian experience from the vibrant streets of Naples to the breathtaking sceneries of the Amalfi Coast followed by Matera and down to Puglia with its golden beaches, intense flavours and fascinating destinations.
2. ScotlandEmbark on this great adventure starting from London all the way to Scotland with a true Scottish experience made of breathtaking sceneries, whisky tasting and ..lots of fun! Ideal for train lovers and explorers.
3. PortugalA wonderful train journey around Portugal, from the romantic city of Porto to the Douro Valley, to the beautiful Aveiro all the way to Lisbon and Sintra. The perfect trip to train, culinary and culture lovers.
1. South KoreaDiscover incredible temples, mountains and modern cities on this 10 day adventure. This trip is perfect for those seeking immersion in the cuisine, culture and natural wonders of South Korea.
2. ThailandFrom Bankgok to Angkor Wat to Ho Chi Minh City and everything in between - adventure through the heart of South-East Asia. Taste the delights, see history brought to life and unwind on a Mekong River cruise.
3. Sri LankaA fantastic adventure that showcases Sri Lanka's fantastic landscapes, wildlife and flavours. With 3 epic rail journeys, 3 UNESCO heritage sites and time to relax, this trip has loads to offer at a great price
1. MoroccoAn epic journey across Morocco: from Casablanca to Marrakech, through the blue city of Chefchaouen to the wonders of the desert and deep to the High Atlas Mountains - this trip has it all! Ideal for true explorers!
2. EgyptFrom Cairo to Aswan, this trip brings the land of the pharaohs to life. You'll visit the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and Luxor Temple and cruise down the Nile in style. This is the perfect way to explore Egypt.
“It’s a heart thing to me. I never thought we’d be famous, ya know, but it just happened,” White said. “People say, ‘How you get all this free press?’ and I say hell, it ain’t nothing to it, you just gotta open up, work 16-hour days, seven days a week, and in about 30 years it will fall right into your lap. Piece of cake.”
In a city changing and growing as rapidly as Austin, Texas, the Broken Spoke – buzzing with neon lights, humming with nightly live country music and quaking from the thud of cowboy boots on the dance floor – appears encased in amber. It has stuck to its roots and built its reputation as the last true Texas dance hall.
“I guess I did play a big part in that because I never did change anything – I just stayed true to my roots, which is country music,” White said. “Country music feels like it always comes back. It may leave, but it always comes back. When you come in here, it’s a two-step back in time – you know damned well you’re not in Carnegie Hall, you’re in a real honky-tonk and you feel it right away.”
For the community, by the community
White’s memories of hanging out and dancing at honky-tonks date back to his childhood. As an eight-year-old kid in Austin, he remembers drinking soda pop, flipping through records on the jukebox machine and playing shuffleboard.
Although his choice to later enlist in the US Army took him around the world, as far as Tokyo and Okinawa, White was set on returning to Austin and creating a place similar to those of his youth, but reimagined.
Just before his release from the army, White, stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, had the vision for his establishment, but no name. He wanted something Texan, country and western. White kept coming back to wagons and wagon wheels when he remembered an old Jimmy Stewart movie he loved called Broken Arrow. It clicked – he picked up two wagon wheels, knocked a spoke out of each, placed them out front and called the place the Broken Spoke.
When the foundation was first laid, the Broken Spoke sat outside the city limits and thus was not beholden to the city’s building standards. This allowed White to enlist the help of, as he puts it, “a lot of old people who were drinking who, needless to say, didn’t have any squares or levels.”
“That’s why I think the roof leaked for 25 years. The roofers I had were drunk, they just fell off the damned roof and didn’t care,” White said. “But they wanted to chip in and they didn’t charge me nothing and became my customers after I opened up. They were good people and would help you do anything in the world.”
A journey begins
The original inspiration for the Broken Spoke was limited to cold beer, Southern soul food and a good jukebox. But its profile grew quickly among locals, and White noticed that, due to limited space inside, customers would move into the parking lot to dance.
To accommodate growing demand, White built the now famous dance hall and bandstand at the rear of the Broken Spoke’s main structure. The decision would shift its image from local watering hole to country music destination.
Almost immediately after the dance hall’s completion, White booked old Texas country music superstar Bob Wills. A young, clean-cut Willie Nelson later graced the stage for what would be the first of many Broken Spoke appearances throughout his career. Since the addition of the bandstand, visitors can find live music on stage and two-stepping couples stomping on, or gliding across, the dance floor on any given night.
“People always give ideas. They say, ‘Oh, do this to the stage … put up fancy lights and stuff,’” White said. “I said well, hell, Bob Wills stood right here, why the hell would I want to change this stage up? We ain’t changing nothing – we have cold beer and whiskey and good-looking girls to dance with. And that’s good enough.”
Becoming an icon
Just past the central bar, right before the dance hall, customers can find a small nook covered wall-to-wall with framed, yellowing photographs, encased in dusty glass. Employees call it a tourist trap. White calls it his personal museum.
“I’m old enough to have my own museum now. It’s kind of fun – I framed all these pictures and put ’em up,” White says. “This is all my favorite decorations. Each one is good because it all tells a story, ya know? There’s always a story behind it.”
Several pictures show White posing with Willie Nelson and George Strait. Some feature a smiling Nelson holding White’s children or grandchildren. You can find Matthew McConaughey, Clint Eastwood, Troy Aikman, Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, Lyle Lovett, Robert Rodriguez, Vince Vaughn, Garth Brooks – some of them performing, others enjoying a cold Lone Star beer or chicken-fried steak, all of them relaxed and happy and projecting a genuine sense of gratitude in being there.
“One of the perks of the job,” White says as he points to a picture of him and Reese Witherspoon. “She danced all night.”
The Broken Spoke was always popular among locals, but White says that in the late 1980s and ’90s he began to notice a significant rise in the number of people dropping by. He recalls seeing two men taking a photo of the entrance in 1989. When they told him they were from Belgium, White was shocked.
“I said, ‘What do y’all know about the Broken Spoke in Belgium?’” White said. “They said, ‘Oh, sir, everyone in Belgium knows about the Broken Spoke.’”
White has become an icon himself. When the US Internal Revenue Service seized everything in Willie Nelson’s possession (from family pictures to clothes and records), leaving the musician stranded in Hawaii, White held a Willie-Aid fundraiser at the Broken Spoke to help get him home. The country superstar later thanked White by coming by with several of his well-known country music friends to play a show that went all night and into the early morning.
A once small-town honky-tonk continues its legacy
A strong sense of place and family echoes throughout the Broken Spoke. White said his family roots in Austin date back to the 1840s when his great-great-grandfather camped out in the area with the Texas Rangers. White runs the place with his wife and receives help from his children, neighbors and old friends.
“I’m very fortunate – it’s a very heartfelt thing,” White said. “I tell people sometimes you make your own luck by working hard and putting hours in. When you’re in business you gotta wake up thinking about it and go to sleep thinking about it. You gotta love it. If I didn’t love it I couldn’t last 54 years.”
“It makes you feel pretty good when people come in and say, ‘Everyone on the damned planet said we had to come check out the Broken Spoke,’” White said. “It’s a historical building. Sometimes hysterical.”
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.