Pt 2. Interview: James White & the Broken Spoke

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George Strait. Photography by the Broken Spoke. 

On May 1, 2019 —For the second year in a row, I interviewed James White at the Broken Spoke sitting at table B2 next to a replica of Willie Nelson’s guitar, Trigger. The same booth where Willie Nelson and his wife, Annie, used to dine in decades past. Coincidentally, one year ago I interviewed him on the exact same day. This was not planned and I just so happen to notice this coincidence whilst uploading the audio files post-interview. Last year, the story was published in a local rock-n-roll zine in ATX and I titled it “James White talks 54 years at the Broken Spoke“. The first interview was a bird’s eye view of the last 54 years. Audio from the interview in 2018 can be found online, too. Mr. White talked to me about his quest, the dream of opening a honky tonk and meeting his wife and falling in love with Annetta. He told me about the volunteers who made the building by hand, one of which was a man so drunk he fell off the roof. The first time they booked Willie Nelson back in 1967. Back when Willie wore short hair, clean shaven and wore either a turtle neck, a vest or a sports coat. White told me about the time Dolly Parton came to film “Wild Texas Nights” in the eighties. He told me about the film “Broken Arrow” featuring Jimmy Stewart and how it inspired him to name the Broken Spoke after it. The time Rowdy almost got shot by a police officer when someone stole his father’s silver saddle that is now kept in a glass case.

“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”. – James White

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Over the decades, Mr. White has become friends with the likes of Willie Nelson, Alvin Crow, George Strait, Garth Brooks and the list goes on and on like a jukebox with endless vinyl’s to play. Thankfully, the Broken Spoke isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. In fact, their business is booming right now! This recent kaboom is due to a delightful visit from one of Texas’ most adored and esteemed country western musicians: George Strait.

Last winter, during a daytime walk I noticed an entourage outside of the Broken Spoke and became very curious. True, I see photo shoots and video crews outside the building all the time. People travel from all over to photograph and film this beloved Texas classic. However, this was a larger than usual crew of people. A few nights later, Steven Mark and I trailed in for a few libations. At which point, Mr. White informed my boyfriend and I that the infamous King of Country, the one and only, George Strait was at the Broken Spoke for his latest album Honky Tonk Time Machine.

Universal Records and Spotify came out to film and photograph George Strait at the Spoke, as well as interview Mr. White. On the one hand, I was stunned that George Strait came back to the Broken Spoke for a photoshoot — the sheer idea George Strait was in my hometown at a local bar right around the corner was mystifying. I’ve never seen him in person. Strait is a cowboy I’ve heard singing to me all my life through radios, stereos and televisions. All my life, his face has been all over Texas and the south, and yet, he has no bloody clue who I am. And yet, here Mr. White is just hanging out casually with a long time friend. So, on the other hand—I was not stunned or shocked—it’s just another sunny day in the colorful story of Mr. White, his family and life at the Broken Spoke.

“You can find a chisel, I can find a stone. Folks will be reading these words, long after we’re gone. Baby, write this down, take a little note, to remind you in case you didn’t know. Tell yourself I love you and I don’t want you to go, write this down. Take my words, read ’em every day, keep ’em close by, don’t you let ’em fade away. So you’ll remember what I forgot to say, write this down.” – George Strait

Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, James White booked George Strait for seven years. At the time, Strait was a part of band near San Marcos called Ace in the Hole. Once he became more and more famous, the booking fees outgrew the Broken Spoke. Decades later, true to Texas form, Mr. Strait never forgot his roots and came back to the honky tonk dance hall in Austin. George Strait also brought his wife, Norma, and his driver, Leroy. Weeks later, Broken Spoke was featured on the front cover of George Strait’s latest album “Honky Tonk Time Machine”. The album was released on Feb. 11, 2019. Later on, when George Strait performed at the 2019 Academy of Country Music Awards in April. The backdrop featured a photo of the Broken Spoke and by the graphic effects, it almost looked as if they were playing outside the building. The bright colors of the Texas flag blowing in the wind against the woodwork, the wagon wheels and the honky tonk dance hall. This is outstanding publicity for the Broken Spoke! Ever since, more visitors, from all over are flocking to the Broken Spoke. Which is fantastic news because the city of Austin treasures the local hotspots and it’s comforting to know business is alive and well at the Spoke. I liked hearing James White tell the story about when he finally informed George Strait about the ladies bathroom Annetta adorned with his cowboy pictures. Apparently, Strait was very flattered and had a real good sense of humor about it. I was told he even gave Annetta a kiss on the cheek!

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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 2019, over 55 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, Nat Geo Traveler, CBS News, Texas Monthly, The Smithsonian and more; Broken Spoke is a historical landmark. The Broken Spoke is owned and operated by James and Annetta White. The two met at a dance hall in 1961 when she caught his eye and have been married 52 years. Annetta and her husband have worked together for decades to keep the Broken 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. For which, I am grateful.

“I ain’t got a dime, but what I got is mine. I ain’t rich, but Lord I’m free. Amarillo by mornin’. Amarillo’s where I’ll be”. – George Strait

Days prior to meeting Mr. White for a second interview, I felt anxious. Over the last 14 years, I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews. But I still got intimidated before interviewing James White. Even though the first interview went very well and the story was appreciated – even though I had no reason to feel anxiety because Mr. White and his entire family have been so friendly to me. Secretly, I still felt intimidated like, “What in the world am I going to ask this man that another writer hasn’t already inquired about? Is my story going to be any good at all? Where do I even start the second interview? How do I condense so much history into a few pages?” Instead of delving into my self-doubt as a Texan, I chose to chase the story. And I am glad I did.

Mr. James White is one of the kindest and most down-to-earth individuals I’ve ever interviewed. Out of all the celebrities, artists and entrepreneurs I’ve interviewed over the last 14 years – the White family will always linger fondly in my memory for making me feel welcomed. Not everyone I interview is so kind or humble, and the kindness is forever permeated into my brain. In a way, the Broken Spoke now feels like it’s become part of my own Texas history, too. I can understand wholeheartedly why people have coined the Broken Spoke as “the country western version of Cheers“.

During the second interview, late that morning, there was some commotion in the background. People looking for a key to the walk-in freezer. Beer shipments had arrived and the freezer was locked. Throughout the interview, you can hear people coming and going, including one of his daughters, Terri White. She teaches dance lessons at the Broken Spoke. Terri was kind enough to bring me some fried okra she’d just cooked in the kitchen. Walking over to table B2, she asked me if I wanted a bite, I said yes and took only one piece, as to not feel greedy. I guess she read my mind, because she reached into the basket and placed a handful of okra onto the table and left me with a napkin. It made me smile and I thanked her, again. It was a very sweet moment and reminded me that one of the many reasons why I’m grateful to be a Texas girl: southern hospitality and the love of sharing food and drinks together.

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Artwork by Kevin Geil.

Mr. White has another daughter, Ginny White Peacock. There is a fundraiser for Ginny on May 17, 2019 starting at 8 P.M. CST. Last year, I met her at the previous interview, and she was also very lovely and polite to me. She talked to me about the buildings electrical oddities and asked about my artwork. Recently, after many serious, life-changing health concerns that caused Ginny to lose both her feet and legs, below the knee, and nine fingers—as well as undergo a lot of painful surgeries she’s still recovering from—the Broken Spoke is hosting a silent and live auction to raise money for Ginny to obtain prosthetic legs. A wife and mother to two young boys, the fundraiser is a chance “to celebrate and come together to raise money so Ginny can get back on her feet”. Two Tons of Steel, Derailers, The Wagoneers w/ Monte Warden and other special guests will play music for the benefit. The auction entails over 100 items and collectibles. Including an autographed Limited Edition George Strait guitar (and an autographed cowboy hat) donated by George Strait & Tom Foote. A round of golf foursome with celebrity Ray Benson at Barton Creek Country Club. Ginny’s artwork will also be featured at the benefit. Please come on out to support the White family! If unable to attend the event, there is also a GoFundMe campaign where donations can be made to help Ginny on her road to robot legs.

Music and drinks aren’t all the Broken Spoke has to offer. Their barbecue is quite delicious and they are notorious for their chicken fried steak. On occasion, Mr. White still chops wood for the kitchen. Out at his ranch, there are some gullies and ravines that he uses a tractor to find wood for the fire. Live oak, Spanish oak and Heritage oak are the kinds of firewood he and his crew brings to the Broken Spoke to smoke meats. “It helps zap the taste in there and it’s sort of a flame-kissed smoked process”, stated White. The Spoke has had a BBQ pit from day one and way back in the day, James White and Bobby Flay used to cook together.

It would take several books to document all the history of the Broken Spoke. There is simply no way to condense it all for a literary journalism piece for the web. I hope to compile all my recordings into a short story and get it published elsewhere. Meantime, if you’d like to hear James White talk about the time Garth Brooks played a surprise show at the Broken Spoke in 2017. Booking George Strait back in the 70’s and how White was contacted for the cover of his latest album. Please stay tuned for the interview to go live!

“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”. – James White

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