- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2006

AUSTIN, Texas

Before there was Austin City Limits, before there was Gilley’s, there was the Broken Spoke. After 42 years, this ramshackle-looking building has become something of a shrine that draws pilgrims, literally from around the world, to the sounds of traditional country-western music — emphasis on western.

To its founder, James M. White, it represents “the last of the old-time honky-tonks.”

“I think what keeps us going is I haven’t changed nothin’,” observed Mr. White, 67, in a Texas accent as genuine as a Stetson hat. “We don’t have Perrier water, no hanging fern baskets, just cold beer, good whiskey and good-looking girls to dance with. We don’t have line dancing, except for ‘The Cotton-Eyed Joe.’ If I give ‘em reasonable prices and good food, people feel at home, and they tell their friends. It’s a good ol’ boy way of doing things, but it works for me.”

In its early days, the Broken Spoke booked icons like Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb, while helping start the career of a local boy — and future icon — named Willie Nelson. The newer generation of stars, like George Strait and the Dixie Chicks, also played here on their way up. Now, singers on the cusp of fame, like Alvin Crow and Hank Thompson, are regulars.

Mr. White explained that his family has lived in the Austin area since 1836, the year Texas became an independent republic.

“I was born a mile up the road, and this is as close as I got to town,” he said. “When I was in the Army, I wanted to open up a place. The day I got out of the Army, I started building the Broken Spoke. We did it all ourselves. When I opened up (in 1964), I couldn’t even afford a sign.”

Where did he get the name?

“I thought of Wagon Wheel, then I thought about the movie ‘Broken Arrow,’ so I named it the Broken Spoke,” he explained.

Mr. White built his honky-tonk on a then-rural stretch of South Lamar Street, where it still stands behind a spreading live oak tree, but it has long since been enveloped by Austin’s urban sprawl. Little else has changed, however.

“The only big change was we added mixed drinks in 1980,” he said. Shiner Bock also has since joined Budweiser and Miller; Lone Star remains the lone brew served on tap. A sign outside boasts “the best chicken fried steak in town.”

In short, it is cowboy Nirvana.

Another traumatic change for many patrons was Austin’s new smoking ban, which took the modifier “smoky” out of the term “smoky dance hall.”

One of Mr. White’s early coups, which helped to put the Broken Spoke on the country-western music map, was booking the legendary Bob Wills, his childhood hero, in 1966.

“I had never met him,” he recalled. “When I booked him, people told me, ‘Oh, he’ll never show up,’ or, ‘He’ll show up drunk.’ Wills came through that door all by hisself with a fiddle in his hand. That was the proudest moment for me, introducing Bob Wills. He couldn’t have been nicer to me.”

Mr. Wills played three more times at the Broken Spoke in 1967 and 1968. He died in 1975.

“I booked Willie Nelson in 1967,” he related. “I paid him $800. When it got to the point that he got too expensive to book, I booked his father, Pop Nelson.”

Willie Nelson was to return, however.

“Willie hasn’t charged [me] anything for years,” Mr. White said. “I helped him with his IRS problems, and he never forgot it. That’s when he brought Kris Kristofferson. You always remember these things.”

He said he then met Ernest Tubb and booked him and the Texas Troubadours three times a year for a time. Tex Ritter and Roy Acuff also played the Spoke.

In 1975, Mr. White first booked a promising rising talent named George Strait.

“He played for the cover [charge],” he recalled. “I had the Dixie Chicks when Natalie [Maines] first joined them.”

Jerry Jeff Walker played for a $25-a-person cover charge, he said.

As the Broken Spoke’s reputation and popularity grew, Mr. White said he eschewed the lure of expanding into a glitzy, touristy mega-honky-tonk like Gilley’s in Houston or Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth. The capacity of the 1,400-square-foot dance floor is 661, the maximum under the fire code, but he says 550 is the usual crowd.

The only change in design was to convert a room into a museum containing memorabilia of the legends who have played here. Mr. Wills’ hat and boots are here, as are Johnny Bush’s boots from the year he recorded “Whiskey River.”

Mr. White conceded that the country-western genre is a broad one, and he is concerned about some of the new, nontraditional sounds. He is adamant that clinging to tradition is what keeps the Broken Spoke’s dance floor full.

“A lot of stuff falls under the umbrella of country music — cowboy music, bluegrass, even some pop,” he observed. “Marty Robbins was western but still country.

“I don’t play what I call too-slick-out-of-Nashville. It doesn’t have no heart and soul. Country music tells a story. I like country music that has a good dance beat, so you can pick up your best girl and get a cold beer and go honky-tonkin’ on the dance floor. I want to hear country music; I don’t want to hear rock ‘n’ roll. That’s why people come from all over the world to be here.”

That, he added, is why he doesn’t feel he is in competition with Austin City Limits, which features the modern sounds. Some of the young, up-and-coming bands are proving ambidextrous, he noted, playing the new sounds elsewhere but still offering the traditional fare when they play the Broken Spoke, such as the band the Hot Club of Cowtown.

At some point in the evening, Mr. White takes to the microphone himself to sing such classics as Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin’.”

Mr. White expresses pride that younger singers like Alvin Crow and Hank Thompson continue to play at the Broken Spoke after landing record contracts, and that the Broken Spoke remains a launching pad for country music careers. He recited a list of singers and bands that are still known locally but who he predicts will achieve fame.

“Bruce Robison is my big draw,” he said, “plus Dale Watson, the Derailers, James Hand, the Geezinslaw Brothers and Gary P. Nunn, who recorded ‘London Homesick Blues.’ They draw a lot of people here.”

Helping run the business end of the Broken Spoke from the beginning has been Mr. White’s wife, Annetta, who recently survived a brush with breast cancer.

“It’s definitely a mom-and-pop operation,” he said. Their daughters, Ginny White, 30, and Terri White Montague, 42, tend bar and do waitressing. “Ginny does more of the management part,” he said. “It’ll stay in the family.”

Not that he hasn’t had offers to buy him out.

“They want my job because I’ve got the greatest job in the world,” he said. “I get to sing and hug all the pretty girls. I do exactly what I want to do, and people let me do it.”

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