Interview: James White talks 54 years at the Broken Spoke

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Broken Spoke marquis. Photography by Nicolette Mallow.

With only five cases of beer to sell, James White opened the Broken Spoke in 1964. After he was released from the U.S. Army at the age of 25 – Mr. White decided to pursue the quest, his dream, of opening a honky tonk in Austin, Texas to feature live country music and a dance hall. In the beginning, Broken Spoke was a local roadhouse where beer cost .25 cents a bottle and customers could get ice and a soft drink for .30 cents to chase down their liquor. Back in those days, before the peak of craft cocktails, people could bring their own liquor bottles to the bar in Texas. Now in 2018, over 54 years later, Broken Spoke has become a worldwide famous dance hall with a full bar and restaurant. By the late 80’s the Broken Spoke started to gain more and more fame. Featured in Texas Highways magazine, The Food Network, The New York Times, CBS News, Texas Monthly, the Smithsonian and more; Broken Spoke is a historical landmark. The Spoke has showcased talent like Willie Nelson, George Strait, Garth Brooks, the Derailers, Dale Watson, Alvin Crow, Weldon Henson and the list keeps going for decades. Many artists, icons and celebrities from all over have entered the front doors including Dolly Parton, Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino. Hundreds of old and modern photographs catalog the years within Broken Spoke’s Hall of Fame.

The Broken Spoke is owned and operated by James and Annetta White (his wife). The two met at a dance hall in 1961 when she caught his eye and have been married 51 years. Annetta and her husband have worked together for decades to keep the Spoke running successfully. Amongst her many contributions to the Broken Spoke, I discovered that Annetta is the one responsible for the George Strait photographs covering the women’s bathroom, giving the ladies room some cowboy vibes. 

A lot of people ask me where I met my wife. Well, I met her at a honky tonk. There was an old dance hall in Oak Hill called the Sportsman Inn and I looked out on the dance floor and saw a pretty blonde lady dancing with a red dress on. It was a fast dance and she caught my attention. She caught me eye and I thought I’d ask that girl to dance. That’s where it all started right there.” – James White

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Photo collage of Broken Spoke photographs featuring Willie Nelson, James White, Dolly Parton, Clint Eastwood, Garth Brooks and Annetta White.

Walking into the Broken Spoke is like stepping back in time. Once you enter this classic Texas dance hall and see all of the antique photos from decades past, an intense feeling of nostalgia rushes over and fills the air. It looks exactly as it did when the doors opened in 1964. There is so much eye candy to choose from: a horse saddle, photographs, flags, neon lights, posters, woodwork and of course the dance hall. A replica of Willie Nelson’s guitar Trigger can be found at the Broken Spoke, too. As a Texas girl that’s driven by the Broken Spoke since the 1990’s and enjoyed libations as an adult, I was really excited to finally learn more about this dance hall and the reputable James White.

In May 2018, James White consented to an interview with me. I met him at the Broken Spoke on a weekday around lunch. He and I sat at table B2, which I came to found out is the same table where Willie Nelson and his wife Annie would frequent when they were regular visitors at the Spoke. I went to Lake Travis High School with Willie Nelson’s nephew, Trevor, so it was even more thrilling to be sitting in country western history.

Wearing a UT button-up shirt, a red baseball cap, gold watch and horseshoe ring made of diamonds, James White took me back to the beginning and covered as much history about the Broken Spoke as we could in one hour. Unlike most interviews, White naturally guided the majority of the dialogue exchange. I was simply a listener to keep the story on course, interjecting with questions along the way if things got off track. Before the interview began, White asked me if he could start at the beginning and then jump around in time wherever I wanted to. By listening, I could tell he had told this Texas story many times and it never gets old to tell, or to hear. [He insisted that I record the interview and I posted the audio online in a two-part segment via YouTube.]

James White: A lot of people, you know, they ask me, why did you go into this kind of business? All the way down to my childhood, my parents would take me to different dance halls in this area, and that’s where I got the love of country music in my veins… When I was in the Army, I didn’t know what I was gonna do when I got out of the Army. So I thought it would be kind of neat to open up a place of my own, similar to the places when I was growing up in Austin. It just became like a quest of mine the day I left the Army. And when I came out under the big ole oak tree out front (on South Lamar), I just kind of visualized a place like no other and when I got it built: I named it the Broken Spoke. The reason I thought up that name, I wanted something original. I wanted something country, I wanted something western. Texas style. In my mind, I had a list of different names in my head. When I got to thinking about Broken Spoke I was thinking about wagon wheels and they were kind of rolling around in my brain. And then I remembered this old Jimmy Stewart movie called “Broken Arrow” and I said hell, I’ll just find me a couple wagon wheels, I’ll knock a spoke out and I put one on each side of the door coming in and I named it the Broken Spoke. And I never looked back.

Volunteers made the Spoke by hand. A lot of heavy drinkers pitched in to build the Broken Spoke and one drunk man even fell off the roof. White had to open the doors a little early after running out of money, hence the modest five cases of beer. People even told White the business wouldn’t last six months, but he proved them wrong. It was about 20 years of hard work before the Broken Spoke became famous. Mr. White said it was many years of 16 hour days tending bar, seven days a week. The Broken Spoke is his life’s work and there is a ton of heart and soul poured into this building. 

Music, dance and cold drinks are the focus of this honky tonk, but there is also a strong sense of community and love. The Spoke has been described as “the country western version of Cheers” and it’s become part of Texas history within the arts. Many local Austinites or younger generations don’t know the intricate history of the Broken Spoke. I certainly didn’t and I’ve been here off-and-on since the 1990’s. So, after White’s introduction as to what inspired him to build and create the Broken Spoke. I asked him to tell me more about table B2: Willie Nelson’s table. Willie is one of the most notorious artists to perform at the Broken Spoke and it all starts back in the 1960’s. 

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A replica of Willie Nelson’s guitar “Trigger” and Table B2. Photography by Nicolette Mallow.

JW: I first booked Willie Nelson in 1967. I booked Willie Nelson and The Record Men for $800. He had short hair, he was clean shaven and wore either a turtle neck, a vest or a sports coat. But he’s still the Willie Nelson you see today. His people love to see the one picture of Willie hanging on the wall, and he’s got a copy in his office too: the photo of he and I on stage at Broken Spoke when I first booked him back in the 60’s. He and I have always been friends. Willie has friends all over the world but he always remembers the Broken Spoke. He always comes back every chance he gets… Anyway, when Willie had a tax problem in 1990 and owed $16.5 million: my wife and I were sitting around and we got mad because we heard the IRS took all his pictures and they took all of his awards off the wall and put them up for auction. I didn’t think it was right to take his pictures, gold records, platinum records—and so we thought we’d take a collection and give it to Willie because they’d taken everything he owned. So I got a gallon pickle jar and put it on the bar and put a sign on it “Where there’s a Willie there’s a way”. Willie heard about it and called me up from Hawaii and thanked me. Meanwhile we had a fundraiser for Willie and I sent the money over to Hawaii by way of his daughter, Lana Nelson. His family said Willie talked about the fundraiser all day long and was very excited about it. He called me again and said “thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’m gonna come home for Christmas, and I’m going to bring my band, I’m going to eat some chicken fried steak, drink a cold beer, and I wanna do a little picking (at the Broken Spoke) and I’ll bring some friends with me”. And that’s when a lot of local country artists who knew Willie wanted to get involved. Some nights you never forget. He never asked for money, I did it from the heart. And he thanked me from the heart and he came out and played all night. That was in 1990… So we raised some money and I gave him every letter I received from Associated Press, they ran the story all over the world. We started getting money from Desert Storm, Desert Shield, Birmingham jail and Indian reservations… I never got one bad letter about Willie. All of them were complimentary and even if the donation was $1, Willie autographed every check as a thank you.

After he told me about the fundraiser, James White proceeded to share a song he wrote with Gary P. Nunn called “Where there’s a Willie, there’s a way”. Their song can be heard sung a cappella by Mr. White in Part One of the interview around the 18:00 minute mark. It’s rather clever and has a Willie Nelson-esque melody to it.

Suddenly, as I intended to shift gears from Willie Nelson to Dolly Parton. Her music serendipitously came on the jukebox and you can Dolly’s voice in the background. A series of her songs played at that perfect moment like the classic “Old Flames Can’t Hold A Candle To You.” Echoing in the background, it was a most befitting and true country, western moment in Texas. Back in 1987, Dolly Parton came out to the Broken Spoke to film “Wild Texas Nights” and James White even got to utter a few lines in the filming. There is a charming photo of Dolly Parton on display at Broken Spoke that many people love to photograph.

Bouncing around in time, James White talked to me about the booking process, musicians, family and the architecture of the Broken Spoke. It’s an older building that has a lot of character and endearing oddities. However, White mentions that perhaps if he built it today there would’ve been some changes, like installing larger bathrooms. Nevertheless, there is something beautiful about keeping history locked in a time capsule. Especially in a city like Austin where it’s losing a lot of its originality with the modern times. Broken Spoke has withstood all the changes in Austin and still stands strong with many more memories of live music and dancing to come. 

Over the years, there is one character that all regulars know about and that would be Rowdy. He never leaves the Broken Spoke and has never performed on stage. He doesn’t speak either but Rowdy sits at one of the tables with his sunglasses, bandana, blue jeans and he’s quite the ladies man. Sometimes people like to dance with him, too. Wait, did I mention Rowdy is a dummy?

JW: Rowdy’s skull has a crack now because people keep dropping him on something, or some drunk wants to dance with him or move him around. His knuckles are broken off right here. One time I used to write a newsletter. I talk about Rowdy like he’s a real person, like a living thing. People ask me where I got him and I tell ’em I picked Rowdy up hitchhiking out on 620. So I gave him a ride to the Broken Spoke and now he don’t want to leave and is here at the bar 24/7. When I pulled up to stoplights back then people would look at him, and I’d never do nothing I’d just stare straight ahead, but I knew they was looking at him. Rowdy is a funny guy. When they stole my dad’s silver saddle—the only thing funny in the whole thing (was Rowdy). After it took 14 days to get the saddle back. The first cop on the scene crawled in the same window as the burglars did and he came in and he said, “I almost shot Rowdy!” And I said “I wish you would have because he’d look cool with some powder burns”. But yeah Rowdy just sat there and didn’t say nothing and let them steal the saddle. So anyway when Rowdy broke his knuckles off, we were going to glue them back on. I’m writing about it in this newsletter (for the Broken Spoke) like he’s a person. And I wrote “hell, Rowdy broke off a few of his fingers and they fell onto the floor and the waitress swept it up and thought it was a dill pickle and threw it in the dumpster. When I heard about it I had to send the waitress out to retrieve his fingers out of the dumpster so we could glue them back on”. Soon after this waitress’ sister in a different city said “What kind of place are you working where people are breaking fingers off and gluing them on?” She thought it was a real story. 

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Rowdy reading the newspaper at Broken Spoke. Photography by Nicolette Mallow.

At the end of our interview, I asked James White if out of all the press coverage and all the years of memories, did anything stand out most? It was a tough question to answer and he drifted in time a bit, but eventually it all came back full circle to Texas Highways.

JW: It’s a heart thing you feel good about. At the end of the day, I take more pictures now than I ever took in my life before now. Hell, no one wanted my picture in 1964 but now everyone does and I’ll make up for lost time. There were fun times in the 1960’s and everything was new. I just had so much fun here at the Spoke. But I think the one (press) thing we did with Texas Highways stood out the most. It’s like the gift that keeps on giving. Now we’re on every roadside park in Texas at the rest stops. I mean you come in and there’s a picture of the Broken Spoke and the Cadillac outside. And then on the left there at the state Capitol, it’s right there you know. You got music, you got Texas and then you got the Broken Spoke. It’s a very good compliment to us. Since then we’ve been voted the Best Country Dance Hall in the nation, home of the best chicken fried steak in town, a lot of metropolitan awards. We’ve won a lot of awards. I’m in the Texas Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian. I’m in the Country Music Hall of Fame… I never expected it. All I really wanted was a honky tonk dance hall. So I got what I wanted, but then I got a lot more. Which is fine, it’s fun, a hell a lot more fun to have people brag about you than bitch about you. It’s always more fun to get compliments.

To hear more about Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, the beer drinkers that built the Broken Spoke for free and much more, please check out the interviews in full on YouTubehttps://www.brokenspokeaustintx.net

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