- Peter Blackstock American-Statesman Staff
Drive away from downtown along South Lamar Boulevard, just past the river, and an allegory of Austin’s evolution unfolds over the span of about three miles.
On the right, just past Treadwell Street, a rebuilt Alamo Drafthouse has risen near where the old one used to be, tucked behind a hulking mass of new residences still under construction.
A mile or so down on the left, Maria’s Taco Xpress and Matt’s El Rancho dish out old-school Mexican food, both on sites that differ from their original locations. Matt’s moved there in 1986 from the downtown spot now occupied by the Four Seasons hotel. Maria’s was rebuilt in 2006 a few yards from its initial spot when a Walgreen’s set up shop on the land.
Travel a few more blocks and you’ll find the new South Lamar location of Kerbey Lane Cafe, more or less across the street from where the old one flourished for a quarter-century before moving in 2011.
The story repeats itself: While these local institutions have survived, their original incarnations belong to the ages.
The last stop on our tour comes up soon on the left, shortly before you reach U.S. 290. When you set eyes on the Broken Spoke, the vision seems impossible: Flanked on both sides by imposing new apartment structures, the 50-year-old reddish-brown honky tonk with the crushed-granite parking lot stands its ground, a final holdout from an Austin that is all but gone with the winds of generational change.
Today, it stands out much like the Alamo, the iconic monument to Texas’ independence now surrounded by modern hotels and office buildings in downtown San Antonio. The comparison isn’t lost on Broken Spoke owner James White, 75, who has spent two-thirds of his life turning a traditional country dance hall into a treasure of Texas cultural history.
“I did feel like the Alamo,” he concurs. “You go down to San Antone to the Alamo, and you’ve got all those buildings all around it. But once you go inside the Alamo, you don’t see those buildings. It’s kind of like a step back in time: You can imagine Crockett and Travis and Bowie and everybody right in there. Just like here: When you walk in the Broken Spoke, you get the vibes of people who were here 30, 40, 50 years ago.”
Every Tuesday through Saturday, some of Texas’ finest country bands perform beneath the notoriously low ceiling in the dance hall, their music guiding hordes of two-steppers in endless boot-scooting loops across the long concrete dance floor. Most every night, White is on hand to kick things off, delivering his trademark spiel about how Country Music Hall of Famers such as Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, George Strait and Willie Nelson have graced the stage of the Spoke.
“When I get up on that stage, I don’t see those apartments — I just visualize that Bob Wills stood right here on these boards,” he says. “When you get up on the stage, you feel like you ought to do good, that you should do the best you can. Just think about all those talented musicians and singers that sang right there before you.”
Some of them will stop in this week when the Spoke celebrates the 50th anniversary of its opening on Nov. 10, 1964. This year, Nov. 10 falls on a Monday; the Spoke is closed Sundays and Mondays, so the five-day soiree will run Nov. 4-8.
In truth, it’s largely business as usual rather than a star-studded blockbuster birthday bash. Regular Tuesday and Thursday anchors Weldon Henson and Jesse Dayton will hold their slots, with longtime Spoke favorites Alvin Crow and Dale Watson appearing on Friday and Saturday, respectively. Saturday’s entertainment will include a screening of Henry Horenstein’s 20-minute documentary “Spoke,” which showed last month at the Austin Film Festival.
Scenes from another Spoke documentary by director Brenda Greene Mitchell will be shown Wednesday, which might turn out to be the humdinger night of the week. No act is formally booked for that night, but admission will be free and a house band will play behind whoever happens to show up. Plenty of possibilities come to mind, given that this is the Broken Spoke.
In the beginning
James White spent his early childhood just south of the Spoke, in an old family home near what is now Burger Center. The land had been in the family since his great-great grandfather, John Eaton Campbell, traveled to Texas from Tennessee in 1851.
In 1874, Campbell’s daughter Margaret married Robert Emmett White, whose local renown included an 11-year stretch as Travis County sheriff followed by five years as mayor of Austin at the turn of the century. John Dudley White, one of Emmett’s five sons, was a Texas Ranger who was killed in the line of duty in 1918. He left behind three children, including Bruce Lamar White, who married Lena Fuchs in 1933. They had two sons, the second of whom was James White, born April 12, 1939.
James’ father fought in World War II but didn’t return to his family after his 1943 discharge, instead settling in Southern California and remarrying. Back in Austin, the family moved closer to town, living in houses on West Mary Street and Bouldin Avenue. James attended Becker Elementary and Fulmore Junior High, “and then the first year that Travis (High School) opened up, 1953-54, I was in ninth grade,” he said. He graduated from Travis in 1957.
James’ love of country music traces back to those grade-school days, when he would tune his radio to the Louisiana Hayride on Friday nights and the Grand Ole Opry on Saturdays. He also liked rhythm and blues music and remembers attending shows at City Coliseum by the likes of Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and a nascent rock ‘n’ roller named Elvis Presley who was opening for country star Hank Snow.
After high school, James joined his father in California, working in missile and aircraft factories there and in Nebraska. In 1961, he joined the Army, spending 18 months overseas in Okinawa before coming back to Austin to work at a missile battery on Bee Cave Road in what is now the Westlake area.
A final stint at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio ended in 1964, at which time James decided to leave the Army and open up a honky tonk. He cites Sept. 25, 1964, as the ground-breaking date at the site of an old lumber yard along South Lamar on land owned by local businessman Jay Johnson.
Integral to the process was Joe Baland, whom James’ mother had remarried. A 1977 Texas Senate Resolution honoring the Spoke states that “Joe Baland, anticipating the needs of an expanding capital city, shrewdly noted that Jay Johnson’s property in southwest Austin would provide an attractive and unique locale for a libation-dispensing and socializing establishment. … Baland and his stepson, James White, laboring with limited funds and limitless determination, shouldered the Herculean task of dismantling the old lumber yard and constructing the establishment they would later christen the Broken Spoke.”
A mom and pop joint
Vitally important was the support of James’ soon-to-be wife, Annetta, whom he’d met in Oak Hill in 1960. A University of Texas employee who worked at the UT Tower — she was on the building’s first floor on Aug. 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman went on his sniper spree — Annetta gradually became more and more involved with the Spoke’s kitchen and business operations.
“I had to learn to cook commercially,” she recalled in an interview with American-Statesman videographer Reshma Kirpalani that appears online with this story. “I was from a large family and I knew how to cook, but I’d never cooked for all these people. We used to have 200 people for lunch; there weren’t any other restaurants around us within two or three miles.” Her chicken-fried steak soon became a local favorite that frequently topped best-in-town polls.
Musically, White started establishing the Spoke’s honky-tonk bona fides quickly by booking local country bands on the weekends. D.G. Burrow & the Western Melodies held the honor of being the first band ever hired to play at the Spoke, which initially existed only in the space that is now the front restaurant room.
Annetta remembers how dancers ingeniously expanded the space when the place was packed for its first New Year’s Eve show in 1964. “They would dance out the front door and make a circle and come back in, because we didn’t have room for people to dance,” she says with a laugh. “By the second New Year’s Eve in 1965, we had the dance hall and the first level in the back.”
James and Annetta got married in 1966 and had their wedding reception at the Spoke. That same year, James booked western swing legends Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys for the first of three shows over the ensuing three years. “Bob Wills had been my idol all my life,” James says, a claim backed up by reams of Wills memorabilia on display in the Spoke’s “Tourist Trap” museum room, built as part of the club’s 25th anniversary. Everything from a Bob Wills hat to a photo of White and Wills together to even a cigar butt Wills once smoked can be viewed under glass alongside other Broken Spoke artifacts.
Where there’s a Wills, there’s a Willie
Good things followed that initial Bob Wills booking. In 1967, James nabbed his first show with a short-haired, snappily dressed songwriter out of Nashville named Willie Nelson, paying him $800. A couple years later, University of Texas football coach Darrell K. Royal came out on a night that Nelson was booked and told James he wanted to meet the singer.
“So I brought him over and introduced him to Coach Royal,” James recalls. “Two or three days later, I saw Coach and Edith Royal, and I said (to Edith), ‘Yeah, Coach was out the other night with Willie Nelson, and made a good new friend.’ And Edith said, ‘I guess they are good friends, he didn’t get home till 6 in the morning!’ And Coach said, ‘Oh yeah, I took him over to the 40 acres, and I listened to him do some picking, and we talked and talked.’
“The next time Coach called me, he said, ‘Hey, I’m trying to get Willie to move to Austin, we’ve got to see about getting him some gigs and making him feel welcome in Austin.’ So Coach was the one who was instrumental in getting him to move here.”
Though the Spoke was familiar turf for Willie, his ascension to “outlaw” stardom not long after his arrival in Austin soon put him out of James’ range. “I booked him until he got real popular, and then I couldn’t really afford him,” James admits. But he soon found a fortuitous workaround.
“Pop Nelson, Willie’s daddy, called me up and wanted to play here,” James explains. “It was Pop Nelson with Jesse Ashlock, who was Bob Wills’ lead fiddle player. And then any time Willie was in town, he would come out and play all night with them for nothing.”
That led to the Spoke getting featured in “Honeysuckle Rose,” a 1980 film starring Willie and Dyan Cannon. “They did a couple scenes in the movie out here,” recalls James, who appeared briefly himself. “I didn’t have a speaking part, I’m just behind the bar; you’d have to really look quick. And my wife and my daughter Terri were sitting out at a table.”
Willie sightings at the Spoke were scarce over the next decade, but a January 1990 report in the American-Statesman detailed a surprise appearance at a show by Willie’s friend Kimmie Rhodes. More recently, James revealed the following in a newsletter posted to the venue’s website a couple years ago: “Speaking of old hippies, we want to thank Willie Nelson and Ray Benson for the nice show they performed here at the Broken Spoke for a private party on April 12, 2011” — James’ birthday, naturally.
Hippie hop in a honky tonk
And speaking of old hippies, indeed: The degree to which the Spoke was involved with, or removed from, the cultural cross-pollinization between rednecks and longhairs in Austin during the early-mid-1970s remains a subject of some debate among those who were there.
“The young kids liked country music, and they wanted a place to hear it,” Willie told Casey Monahan in a December 1988 American-Statesman column about the Spoke’s 25th anniversary. “The only places to go around Austin were Big G’s or the Broken Spoke, and then eventually over to the Armadillo, where they wound up with their own place.”
Pedal steel guitarist Herb Steiner, who first played the Spoke in January 1975 as a member of Crow’s band, has a slightly different recollection that involves Townsend Miller, the American-Statesman’s country music columnist from 1972 to 1983. “Townsend Miller went to James White and said, look, this town has got country music recording artists that are afraid to come into your club,” Steiner said.
Steiner’s sense is that the cross-pollinization between hippies and rednecks, which became a hallmark of the Armadillo, was slower to take root at the old country dance hall. Prior to 1973, Steiner says, “a progressive country musician wouldn’t even go into the Spoke.”
Both perspectives may be valid. White points to a 1973 fundraiser for longtime Congressman Lloyd Doggett, who was launching his political career with a Texas Senate bid, as a turning point for his own connection to a different clientele. The band for the event was Freda & the Firedogs, a red-hot local group fronted by a young Marcia Ball. White was amazed when around 500 people showed up.
“That was my first encounter of having a whole lot of short-haired cowboy or redneck type of people and a whole lot of hippies” on the same night, White says. “But they all mixed pretty well together, and we didn’t have any problems. … When they danced, they didn’t know the Texas two-step, back in 1973. With some of them, it was kind of like the hippie hop. They would dance real fast round and round in a circle.
‘But I got to thinking, ‘Well, anybody that can draw 500 people to a fundraiser, I’m going to start booking out here.’ So I started booking Freda & the Firedogs for quite a while after that.”
“The Broken Spoke was packed with folks who paid a hefty $1.50 each — yes, that is the correct spot for the decimal point,” Doggett reminisced via email this week. “I treasure the poster that Bobby Smith, one of her Firedogs and now an Austin attorney, gave me. Concert prices have gone up a little since then but so has Marcia’s career and the legacy of James White and the Broken Spoke.”
Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson has a similar recollection about 1973 being a turning point. His band first played the Armadillo that February and ended up playing the Spoke by the end of the year. “Even though we had long hair, James heard the music and said, I want these guys,” Benson says, noting that the Wheel was getting on the radio with Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb songs.
“The real important thing about the Spoke was that they were the first ones to let the longhaired country bands play” at a traditional Texas dance hall, Benson says. “Before that, it was great music, but the longhairs didn’t go to those bars. James was the first one from that side who understood it was great music.”
An inside Strait
Another act that became a fixture starting in 1973 was Alvin Crow, who has played the Spoke regularly with his band the Pleasant Valley Boys ever since. Inspired in part by Crow’s instrumental fiddle tune “Broken Spoke Waltz,” James wrote a song called “Broken Spoke Legend” that Crow recorded (with James singing lead) on his 1989 album “Pure Country.”
Perhaps Crow’s greatest contribution to the Spoke’s legacy, though, was when he brought in a young group from San Marcos to open for him in 1975. “He called me up and said, I’m gonna be a little late, I’m playing a wedding,” James says, “but I’ve got a good little band that’s going to open up for me. The name of the band is Ace in the Hole.”
Future country legend George Strait and his crew became a monthly fixture at the Spoke for the next seven years, until the success of Strait’s initial albums in the early ’80s put him out of James’ league.
“He hit a big one with that song ‘Unwound’” in 1981, James says. After that, “I booked him a couple times at like $3,500, then it jumped to $20,000, then it jumped up to $100,000 so I couldn’t afford him anymore. But we still have a friendship. and all those band members still come out here.”
Popular acts in the 1980s at the Spoke included People’s Choice, a country cover band that played every Wednesday for many years and drew a younger crowd. By the ’90s, the Broken Spoke had been around long enough to be treated as a venerated institution, with tourists from around the world stopping in on the advice of guidebooks.
White recalls seeing a Belgian visitor taking a photo in front of the building. “I said, ‘How’d you hear about the Broken Spoke?’ And he said, ‘Oh, everybody knows about the Broken Spoke in Belgium.’”
21st century concerns
The July 2001 death from cancer of former Austin City Council Member Jay Johnson, who owned the 7.2 acres of South Lamar land that included the spot where the Broken Spoke stands, threw the venue’s long-term survival into question for the first time in decades. Johnson’s children left things as they were for many years, but in 2006 they decided to put the property up for sale — with the caveat that prospective buyers who promised to leave the Spoke alone would get preference.
Joe Willie McAllister, founder of McAllister & Associates Real Estate Services and a longtime friend of Jay Johnson, represented the family in the sale. “We said that if we’re going to sell this land, we’re not going to let whoever buys it do away with the Broken Spoke. They have to keep it.”
An initial deal in 2007 with Ardent Residential, which had agreed to keep the Spoke in place, fell through, so the land went back on the market and eventually sold in 2010 to Riverside Resources, who agreed to the same save-the-Spoke caveat. McAllister told American-Statesman columnist John Kelso last year that the Johnson family accepted Riverside’s offer even though it was more than $1 million less than the highest bid, because of the promise not to bulldoze the Spoke.
A precarious period followed when Riverside subsequently sold the land to Transwestern, which made plans to build an extensive stretch of apartments. But Transwestern followed through with Riverside’s agreement to continue leasing the Spoke’s plot of land to the Whites, leading to last year’s construction of apartments in two sections on both sides of the dance hall.
The transition hasn’t been without hiccups. White resisted a paved front lot, replacing the old caliche with crushed granite. But the side lots were paved and connected to the apartments, though a side benefit is free parking in the retail sections of the garages. The Whites weren’t happy with the addition of a sidewalk out front and the elimination of a vehicle entrance, nor do they like the wooden fence that now surrounds an iconic oak tree out front.
“I would have just as soon it stayed the same,” James says. “I don’t like change; I like things the way they were. I don’t really like South Lamar like it is today. There’s too many apartments, and it’s getting too commercialized.”
Will the Spoke survive?
Though the landlords who succeeded the Johnson family have followed through with the plans to keep the Broken Spoke around so far, that could change. James doesn’t sound worried, at least publicly: “I think there would be such a public outcry if anything ever happened to the Broken Spoke,” he says. True enough, but Austin’s recent past is dotted with tales of beloved institutions such as Las Manitas and Liberty Lunch that were bulldozed anyway.
At 75, James still seems devoted to his life’s work, though he takes comfort in the knowledge that the Spoke is a family affair. In addition to Annetta’s involvement on the restaurant and business end of the operation, both of their daughters work there. Terri gives one-hour dance lessons before almost every show, and Ginny helps with both administrative and bar/restaurant duties. Ginny’s husband, Mike Peacock, works as a bartender.
“I can stay here as long as I want to,” James says, “and if anything ever happened to me, my wife would be here. If anything ever happens to her, my daughters Ginny and Terri are here also.”
In the meantime, there’s still plenty of work to be done at the Spoke. “It does keep you young,” Annetta says, “because you’ve got too much to do. We’re never going to retire, because if you retire, you die. We’re just going to work as long as we need to do it, as long as we can do it.”
She laughs as she remembers what her husband once told her.
“James said, ‘I never promised you any rockin’ on the front porch.’”