Austin People Exposed:
by Bruce Robison
Photography by Leah Overstreet
My wife joined an Internet group called “When Austin Didn’t Suck.” A mild joke—we love this town, but of late the pace of change has been jarring. Thankfully, there are a few places left that are stubbornly old school. At the top of that list is the Broken Spoke; this month it celebrates 50 years of keeping it country in South Austin. Rarely in all those years would you have walked under the big oak tree, thrown open the doors on that rustic red dance hall, and not found owner James White, his wife, Annetta, and assorted family members there to greet you—smiling and dressed to the nines. If you’re looking for the Texas trilogy of chicken-fried steak, cold beer, and good country music to dance to, the place to be is the Broken Spoke.
I have played the Spoke many times over the past 20 years. It’s a cultural touchstone for me. I started going to German beer halls across the Hill Country with my grandparents shortly after I moved to Bandera from Houston at the age of four. I started playing dance halls with the first band I formed, in seventh grade, and cut my teeth in the business of keeping that circle going around on the dance floor, pacing the night, and playing old favorites. I still find it a lot of fun, though I have to rest up to sing the 50-plus songs you’re gonna need after 9 p.m.
Most of the old dance halls are gone, but once there were lots of them. It was a circuit that all the big bands traveled when country music was for jukeboxes, a.m. radios, and good country folk who would dress up and head into town on Friday and/or Saturday night for some well-deserved R&R after a hard week of work. If you listen to older country music on up till about the 80s, the songs sound like they’re being sung in a beer joint, as opposed to now, when current country radio sounds more at home in a large arena or wherever the hell DJs work. That old-style music is alive and well at the Spoke, where they are famous for “not changing nothing,” even though every bit of South Lamar has changed around them. Also, nowhere is that “Live Music Capital” thing more apt than with Dale Watson, the Derailers, and Alvin Crow filling up a long night of great country dance music with mostly original tunes (where else you gonna find that?).
Buddy of mine was in the Spoke one night, and Jenny White (one of James and Annetta’s daughters) cut him off at the bar. He told me he went into an indignant rant, informing her of the hundreds of times he had been in the Spoke and how he was never coming back. Jenny looked at him deadpan and said, “You’ll be back.” He slunk away sheepishly to sleep it off, and he did indeed go back. Had to—it’s the Spoke.
LET’S START WITH THE DEEP STUFF: YOU PLAY A LOT OF POKER—WHAT’S THE MOST YOU’VE EVER WON?
$4,400 couple times, over $2,000 several times. It’s just fun. I wish I was out in Vegas right now.
WHO BUILT THE SPOKE?
I started working on the Broken Spoke the day I got out of the Army. I tell people that every drunk in the construction business in Austin has worked on the Spoke.
WHAT GAVE YOU THE IDEA?
I was a short-timer in the service, stationed in Okinawa, and I was craving country music. I wore out a couple tunes on the jukebox over there, one of ’em was a George Jones, another was a Hank Locklin number I used to play in an old, dirt-floor sake house in a little town called Yomitan. When I was a kid, my parents would take me to the dance halls. So I had a dream back in 1964, underneath that big old oak tree on South Lamar. I looked over the vast Texas land, and there wasn’t another building in sight. I visualized a place like no other, and when I got it built I named it the Broken Spoke. I was 25, and now I’m 75. We are the oldest business on South Lamar.
THE SPOKE HAS BEEN SO CONSISTENT. EVER THOUGHT OF CHANGING ANYTHING?
I had to open sooner than I wanted to ’cause I run outta money, and I could only afford to open the front bar. I bought five cases of beer and I sold that, then I bought ten cases of beer and I sold that, that’s how I got my start. But I had good credit, a strong back, and I was willin’ to work, and sixteen hours a day and seven days a week. The following year I opened the dance hall. Then in ’66 I opened up the wings on either side of the dance hall.
YOU DIDN’T HAVE MUCH EXPERIENCE. WHAT WAS THE SMARTEST THING YOU DID EARLY ON?
We hired good people. I think you treat people well, make ’em feel welcome, and give them a fair price whatever you’re selling.
THE COUNTRY MUSIC BUSINESS HAS CHANGED—THE GUYS ON THE RADIO USED TO PLAY IN THE SPOKE.
Well, we get ’em on the way up, and on the way down. Some guys like Willie just go up, and up, and up. And Willie will still come by, just because that’s the kind of guy he is. I booked Bob Wills in ’66, ’67, and ’68, and if he was alive today he’d prob’ly get $100,000, but back in them days, believe it or not, it was $400.
YOUR DAUGHTER TERRY’S DANCE LESSONS ARE VERY POPULAR. EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW HOW TO TWO-STEP, RIGHT?
She does a great job. There are folks who might have been sittin’ on the sidelines, and in an hour she will have ’em on the dance floor, and then they can stay for the band afterward. For eight bucks she’ll have you dancing—that’s a hell of a lot better than Arthur Murray’s. Terry has taught all kinds of people to dance. She taught Robert Plant how to two-step. And Lois Lane . . . what’s her name? Teri?
She learned how to dance here. I let her roll the wheel one time, she got to drinkin’ and she almost dropped it. CNN called the other day, and they wanted to bring Mario Andretti by. We were gonna teach him to dance, he did some interviews, but his lady friend was from Holland. I think she was more into opera or something.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE SONG TO DANCE TO?
I like to waltz. “Jole Blon” is probably one of the best to dance to.
IN BANDERA THEY WERE ALWAYS SPRINKLING SOMETHING OUT ON THE DANCE FLOOR—CORNMEAL, OR SAWDUST, OR ASBESTOS OR SOMETHING. DO YOU DO THAT?
Dance wax. It’s pretty expensive too. My wife fusses at my daughter at the dance lessons, “You’re using too much dance wax!” It’s the same stuff we put on the shuffleboard to make the puck go faster.
HOW HIGH IS THE STAGE CEILING?
WOULD YOU CHANGE THAT IF YOU COULD DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN? (I AM 6’7”)
You know, sometimes you gotta give ’em something to talk about. I remember people would come in and bitch, “When you gonna pave that parking lot?” I think it’s kinda like that low ceiling, it makes people feel like they’re in their own little world. I just BS ’em and say, “People weren’t that tall back in the 60s.”
I would also probably give the women a better restroom (laughs). One year the Chronicle voted us Best Restroom Doors because of our shower curtains. They used to be animal print shower curtains; the women would burn the eyes out of the animals with their cigarettes. Then somebody stole the shower curtains, so they musta been pretty good.
DID YOU MAKE THAT URINAL?
No, we got that secondhand; I think somebody probably gave it to us.