When James and Annetta White opened the Broken Spoke in 1964, South Lamar Boulevard had barbed wire fences and rolling pasture — a far cry from the condominiums, restaurants and traffic you see today. But a walk inside the honky-tonk dance hall today doesn’t feel much different than it would have 50 years ago.
Donna Marie Miller worked with founder James White for more than three years to write a book about the Austin institution. The Broken Spoke: Austin's Legendary Honky-Tonk chronicles the country music, chicken-fried steak, ice cold beer and nostalgia that have kept the venue thriving.
James White: I got to build the Broken Spoke and name it. Back in 1964, the day I got out of the Army, I didn't know what I was going to do when I got out. I thought it would be kind of neat to have my own dance hall and bar, like back in the '40s and '50s when I used to go with my parents to places like it.
So, I came to the big ol' oak tree out there and walked across the old dirt parking lot and it's got to be a place like no other. When I got it built I named it the Broken Spoke. And the city limits of Austin was a mile down the road, down there in front of [Matt's] El Rancho at the time, and now it’s like 4 or 5 miles the other way.
KUT: What was South Lamar Boulevard like when you opened this place?
White: It was nothing like this. It wasn't nearly as busy and [there] was an old barbed wire fence up there about half down. This was kind of a pasture land and had trees and mesquites. It wasn't another building in sight.
Who would have believed that back there in 1964 that things like in Austin would be that big. At that time, Austin, Texas, was a sleepy little city and if you got out of Austin to another state, they wouldn't even know where Austin was. They know where the hell it is now, but at the time they didn't know where it was.
KUT: You've had so many musicians come here through the years. What are some of the shows that stand out in your memory?
White: Every picture I have on the wall here, there's a story behind it and it's very easy to give interviews. I just go from picture to picture. But when I get up on the stage, and before I introduce the band I'll say, :"We've had people like Bob Wills up here, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Dolly Parton and Ernest Tubb." The list goes on and on.
KUT: There's a picture over there of Jerry Jeff Walker.
White: Jerry Jeff Walker, sure Jeff loves this place. He wanted to build a home. And his room, he wanted to look like the front of the Broken Spoke.
I opened [the bar and dining area] in '64 and then for New Year’s Eve of '65 I had the dance hall opened up, and one of the first big stars [we] ever had was Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. It was a big deal because Bob Wills was a household word with us around the house. Everybody knew "Take it away, boys."
I'm real proud of that. I guess I've lasted longer than any other dance hall operator there is.
KUT: You outlived a lot of music venues, dance hall or not, in Austin. How do you manage to survive while these other music venues can’t?
White: The guys at the bar, you know, they figured I was 25-years-old, and I didn't know what the hell I was talking about. This is probably about half right, but I learned as I went. You kind of learn as you go and try not to make the same mistake twice. Treat people like you want to get treated when you go to a restaurant and give them cold beer at reasonable prices, good food at reasonable prices, and make them feel welcome. Try to entertain them. That's kind of been my turnkey of success at the Broken Spoke.
KUT: You said you're not a big fan of change. You like to keep things the same. What do you think about all the change that's happened around the Broken Spoke?
White: I like it the old way. I like to have those shops that we had. Seemed like it went together with the Spoke a lot better when you got a radiator shop maybe next door, and a transmission place and a car repair on the other side.
I was here before all those businesses got here. I'm still here, and now they're all gone. I told the city and I told the [owners of the apartment complex surrounding the Spoke] I said, "Well, I'm not leaving." I said the way I feel now, I'm not going nowhere.
I kind of drew a line in the sand, and I'm here to stay. A lot of people think that I was going to leave, and I said, "No, why would I leave? I'm having fun here." It doesn't matter how much money is stacked on the table. I mean, I'd rather say I own the Broken Spoke than say I've got a couple of million in the bank.
KUT: Some people are worried that the Broken Spoke might be pushed out by all this development. What do you say to people who are worried about the future of the Broken Spoke?
White: Well, you know, I just tell them just like what I told them when I had a heart problem 17 years ago. They wanted to have a fundraiser or something for it. I said, "No." As long as y'all support the Broken Spoke -- and you come out here and have a good time and spend money -- I said that's thanks enough for me. I don't need you to do anything more than that. As long as y’all keep coming out, I'll be here for you if you're going to be here for me.
KUT: Tell me about this book.
White: Well, I'm sitting right here with Donna Marie Miller, and we worked on this book for over about three and a half years.
Miller: I'm the author of the Broken Spoke: Austin's Legendary Honky-Tonk, published by Texas A&M press. And I really love the Broken Spoke. I've been coming here off and on since 1982.
KUT: Why do you love it so much?
Miller: There's so much history here. If you are a classic country music fan, you have to appreciate that Bob Wills played here. You know a lot of famous musicians over the years started here: Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker. Even Dolly Parton filmed Wild Texas Wind here in 1990, a TV movie.
When you come into the Broken Spoke, you feel a sense of — it doesn't feel like current, you know? It feels like you've stepped into the past. It looks the same as it did in the 1960s, and there's all this nostalgic memorabilia on the walls and in the little cubby holes. And these people that come here really feel that. So, it's like a family. It's a community that really appreciates country music and the history of the place.
Donna Marie Miller and James White will be at BookPeople this Sunday, May 7, at 2 p.m. for a discussion and book signing. Donna says James might even sing a song or two.