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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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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 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.”