Cornell Hurd plays the Broken Spoke; James M. White sings “Cinderella”

CornellHurdComposer, audio producer, guitarist and vocalist Cornell Hurd has a biting sense of humor that bodes well for country music song writing and for Broken Spoke fans.

His “It Wouldn’t be Hell Without You,” and “Your Ex-Husband Sent Me Flowers (‘Cause He Feels Sorry For Me,”) and “Tell Your Shrink I Said ‘Thanks for Nothin’” represent just a few lyrical themes that sting a bit and resonate.

Releasing more than a dozen albums in the past 20 years – all of them on the Behemoth label, in 2000 Hurd also produced Johnny Bush’s Lost Highway Saloon. At least one Saturday night a month, Hurd plays the Broken Spoke, a steady gig in town where he and his band packs a crowd on the large dance floor.

Hurd claims that he moved to Austin from California for the sole purpose of performing at the Broken Spoke and says he feels sorry for other musicians who have never experienced it.

“I have been playing music in this town for 24 years and I have no regrets whatsoever,” he said. “I get to play at the Broken Spoke. I feel sorry for musicians that do not get to do what we do in here.”

Hurd discovered the Broken Spoke coincidentally more than 25 years ago. When he played the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1989, someone there referred him to the Broken Spoke as “the best place in town to buy a chicken-fried steak.”

“I got the best chicken-fried steak in town. It was massive and it was wonderfully delicious and it was real Texas. I fell in love with the joint,” Hurd said. “It was the long way around, but my introduction to the Broken Spoke came via the staff at the Armadillo World Headquarters.”

During those years, Hurd played in a country rock band and he did not perform at the Broken Spoke. He often ate dinner at the Broken Spoke before he playing at the Armadillo, starting a tradition with his band members. These days, Hurd enjoys performing in a dance hall that perpetuates what he calls the “Texas dance tradition.”

“The Broken Spoke is absolutely the epitome of all the good stuff about Texas music. The dance tradition never left Texas,” he said. “They used to do this in other parts of the country. The dance tradition was different as it spread across cultures: the Germans, the Spanish, and the Czechs. Everybody did it, but it may be nearly all gone now. This is where it remains. The Texas dance tradition is still alive here and this is one of the places keeping it alive.”

Hurd grew up in Silicon Valley, California the son of ex-military parents. His father worked as an engineer during the Cold War and he served as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. He once lived in the Cupertino area of Santa Clara County, directly west of San Jose, home to Apple computer company.

He grew up with one of Apple’s founders, Steve Wozniak. His friend Wozniak, who attended the same junior high, high school and college as Hurd, mentions him in his last biography as David Hurd, though he goes by his middle name these days.

The country music scene in Berkeley, California provided the impetus for Hurd’s musical direction and also inspired another one of his friends, Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel. When Benson and Asleep at the Wheel moved to Austin in the early 1970s they visited the Bay Area and tried to convince Hurd to make the move after he graduated with a degree in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley.

“I tried moving to Texas in 1974 and got a construction job in Amarillo,” Hurd said. “I stayed on Amarillo Boulevard in the Tradewinds East Motel. I also worked at the copper refinery on the Dumas Highway a couple of weeks. It was dead of February and coming from California I had no idea it could get that cold and windy. I got sick as a dog with pneumonia and went back home.”

Eventually, he moved to Austin where folks promised warmer weather and a gig performing at the old Armadillo World Headquarters. He performed the Armadillo nine times, thanks to a little help from his friends, Asleep at the Wheel and Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen.

In the late 1980s, long before the Internet, Hurd moved to Florida to work tech jobs.

“Benson and Asleep at the Wheel remained personal friends, but I had been out of the music scene for the best part of the 80s,” he said. “I was in a used records store when low and behold there in front of me was a copy of Asleep of the Wheel’s album, number ten. I took it home, put it on my turntable and it was pure freakin’ magic.”

Then one day, by chance he watched Billy Joe Shaver’s video, Way Down Texas Way.

“I thought ‘Whoa, I should be doing this again.’ It had the songs ‘Tulsa Straight Ahead,’ and ‘Blowin’ Like a Bandit.’ And it was all good. It was Benson’s kind of come back project in a way,” Hurd said. “It became associated with my come back because I decided that it was what I was going to do.”

Hurd hadn’t yet decided how he was going to get to Texas at that point. He was 40 years old and he had been living with the woman who would become his second wife, Debra. He started talking long distance to his former bass player, Frank Roeber, who lived in Jacksonville, Florida and a former guitar player, Paul Skelton, who lived in New York City.Meanwhile, Hurd’s job in Tampa-St. Petersburg ended.

“My wife turned to me and said ‘You spend all of your weekends watching ‘Austin City Limits hoping to see one of your damn friends, why don’t we just move there?’ She was a musician and a wonderful piano player. I loved her dearly, still love her,” Hurd said. “So we moved here to give this show business one more good shot. Really, there’s only four places you can go when you’re talking about doing what I wanted to do and that’s Los Angeles, Nashville, New York City or you could go to Austin, Texas. We really never considered any of the other places.”

Hurd said all of the country music stars he grew up listening to either hailed from Texas or they performed there regularly throughout their careers. In the 1980s, every bar or lounge in Texas had a dance floor. He said the dancing at the Broken Spoke astounds people when they visit from anywhere from outside Texas or beyond the United States.

“Which brings me to the insanity of the City of Austin council not giving the Broken Spoke a tax abatement or of not protecting this place,” Hurd said. “The people down at City Hall do not understand, do not freakin’ understand, how many people come here to Austin just because they want to see the Broken Spoke.”

The Texas dance tradition separates the Broken Spoke from a bar. Hurd mentions in one of the liner notes off one of his 20CDs that watching people dance represents one of the best parts of any gig playing in a dance hall.

“What’s not to like about beautiful women dancing by you?” Hurd said.

James and Annetta White, still dress up to dance at the Broken Spoke. “They are really good dancers and the Whites obviously love this music,” he said. The Broken Spoke also represents the best part of the local music community as well as statewide.

“I put the Broken Spoke at the top of the heap when it comes to the music community in Texas,” he said. “This is absolutely the ‘real deal’ here.” The Whites treat bands fairly at the Broken Spoke too, he said. “You get treated fairly here. You don’t beg; you don’t beg for money,” Hurd said. “You don’t pass the hat. You play for the door here, but they make sure you get it.”

If anyone charted the relationship between music and geography in Texas, Hurd said a push pin map might reveal that the greatest number of music stars come from Texas.

“The real country music stars, the people who made country music what it is, are all from Texas,” Hurd said. “And their craft was honed in the dance halls just like the Broken Spoke.”

Hurd referred to Willie Nelson’s autobiography with Bud Shrake, Heart Worn Memories, about the Red-Headed Stranger’s roots growing up in Abbott and West, Texas.

“I watched Willie sit in one night with Kimmie Rhodes’ band right here at the Broken Spoke. They brought him a chair and an electric guitar that was plugged in and he sat down and played with Rhodes’ band. The man put on a damn clinic.”

Other musicians in the band that night fell right into Nelson’s rhythm and performed “You Can’t Break My Heart (It’s been Broken Before).”

“I’ve never seen anything like it and he did one right after another. He did ‘Please Release Me.’ Because that’s what we do here,” Hurd said. “Bob Wills is from here and Wills played at the Broken Spoke. If you go into that room they call ‘The Tourist Trap,’ you’ll find an old cigar he once smoked.” Johnny Bush, Ray Price, and Ernest Tubb have all performed at the Broken Spoke. “I opened for Ray Price and we ran the P.A. for him – word,” Hurd said. “He played here.” Austin calls itself “the live music capital of the world.”

However, Hurd defined the genre of music performed in town, as a genre that cannot be found in such abundance anywhere else on Earth. “Austin’s not the rock capital of the world; not anywhere even close. It’s not the blues’ capital of the world; we haven’t been a blues town in a long, long time. It isn’t the Reggae capital of the world and it isn’t the jazz capital. Classical music? – No. It’s none of those things. What are we the capital of? We are the capital of Ameripolitan music,” Hurd said.

“People come from all over the world to hear us do that. There are people who take their vacations here so that they can come here to the Broken Spoke. I see them five times in the same week.”

Hurd said that Ameripolitan music has roots in country, rockabilly, honky tonk, and Western Swing. He said singers and musicians who do not hail from Texas, often remain connected to the state because out of a love for: George Jones, George Strait, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Bush.

On a similar note, he adds that Roger Miller wrote Texas standards and played fiddle for Ray Price’s band in the late 1950s, while Johnny Paycheck played in George Jones’ band. The greatest Nashville musicians have all performed at the Broken Spoke because it has provided the space and money for their work.

“Willie Nelson’s gig was (originally) in Helotes at the country store. They still have the sign up out front that reads: ‘Every Friday night Willie Nelson.’ The sign’s been up there ever since,” Hurd said. He grew up listening to his parents’ big band records, including Glen Miller. “My parents had a collection of Time Life records and that was it,” Hurd said. “I’ve been coming here a long time. I recorded a live record here in 1993. James M. White’s famous speech is part of that record.”

The album, Live at the Broken Spoke, in 1993, followed a trend begun by a few other local artists who also took advantage of the venue to record their music. The tradition began in 1964 with the Geezinslaw Brothers, a comedy country band fronted by Sammy Allred and Dewayne “Son” Smith until 2005. The 1990s represented “a second coming of the glory days” of country music in Austin and celebrity musicians who performed at the Broken Spoke included local headliners: Don Walser, The Derailers, Rosie Flores, Bruce and Charlie Robison, and Junior Brown.

“The Broken Spoke has always been going strong ever since I’ve been affiliated with it,” Hurd said. “The music scene in general in Austin in 1990 was going strong. I’m telling you the competition around here was brutal.”

People from all over the world still come to hear music at the Broken Spoke, he said.

“People come from Japan. People come from Norway – no one goes to Norway to hear their music,” Hurd said.

The Broken Spoke represents more than a local business; it draws fans of country music to Austin more than the city itself, he said.

“This is not just a bar that people of our ‘ilk’ go to. This isn’t just a bar or a club or a music venue,” Hurd said. “The Broken Spoke is way beyond all that. It is a cultural magnet. It is the face of what we do in Austin for music. The only other place of any competition in town in my opinion is the Continental Club.”

When Hurd and his band perform on Saturday nights, they often pack a crowd of world travelers visiting town.

“I get on stage and I ask them: ‘Where are you from?’ They start yellin’ from all over the room; we have people here from all over the place,” he said. “Sometimes people don’t get here in time for Terri White’s dance lessons and they hear us play and they want to get up and dance. Everybody can dance when we play ‘Last Date.’ It’s the prelude to sex. I tell them ‘I don’t care if you’re from Pennsylvania or you’re from Romania, everybody can dance.’ On the break, a couple of women from Romania came up to the stage one night and said: ‘We’re from Romania and we love this place.’”

Kidding aside, Hurd turns into quite the promoter and marketing specialist whenever he talks about the Broken Spoke.

“The lighter version is this is a tourist attraction. The heavier version is this place speaks to people about who we are as Texans, as Austinites. It is absolutely critical to what Austin is,” he said. “Trust me, without the Broken Spoke there would be a part of what we do that would be absolutely be gone.”

Nostalgic mementos like Joe Baland’s silver saddle that he once wore in the Rose Bowl parades, an original Nudie brand western shirt, autographed guitars, and photographs of celebrities and musicians who once performed at the Broken Spoke have created its magical atmosphere.

“There was a time when big band and jazz music was the music of America. That’s where Bob Wills came from. That went all the way to the 60s until we got into playing on top of the beat. Texas is still swinging: it’s swing dancing. Whether you play rockabilly, or you play boogie-woogie or you play Western Swing, this is where it’s done,” he said.

“You understand that the hey day for Bob Wills’ music was in the 1930s and ‘40s and for Ray Price it was the 40s and the 50s. Still, on any Saturday night in any town of any size in Texas, you’ll still hear (Ray Price’s signature song,) ‘Crazy Arms,’ or any number of Bob Wills tunes from ‘Milk Cow Blues,’ to ‘Heart Aches by the Number.’ Any of those, or ‘My Shoes Keep Walkin’ Back to You.’ It doesn’t make a difference which.”

Texas music continues to resonate with fans.

“We have these soaring Texas melodies, beautiful melodies,” Hurd said. “This guy interviewing Bob Wills one time, when Western Swing was at its lowest point, asked him in an interview at a radio station in the 1960s: ‘Do you think this is it for Western Swing? Do you think it will ever come back again?’ The man (Wills) answered without hesitation: ‘Oh no; not at all. One day, some handsome young man will come along and he will understand these beautiful melodies and he will make them his own.’ That man predicted George Strait years before he happened.”

The Broken Spoke remains as timeless as the music performed here.

“That fact is a fact,” Hurd said. “A beautiful melody isn’t going to go away, romance isn’t going away, the relationships between men and women won’t go away. So in that regard, it is all timeless.”

Hurd lives for those moments on stage when all of the musicians in his band play their instruments independently to produce a unified sound — melodies — that elicit a series of emotions from their audience. Typically, his band includes: Scott Walls, on steel guitar; Chris Cook, on rub board; Nathan “Night Train” Neal, on tenor sax; Jim Starboard, on drums; Allen Crider, on lead guitar; Bracken Hale, on bass; and Basil McJagger, on piano.

“It’s called a groove when everyone’s in the pocket. That’s what we’re doing here. I’m a dance band first and foremost. You can call what we play whatever you want. The Western Swing Nazis would argue that what I play isn’t Western Swing. I’m more of a smart ass than a country guy, but the fact of the matter is, I can play this stuff and I’m good at it. I’m real good at it.”

When he performs Charlie Walker’s song, “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down,” the dance floor stays full the entire time, he said.

“I know that’s the pocket where they’re comfortable here. They get up and they dance,” Hurd said. “There are people dancing by me who are smiling at me – I get their ‘thumbs up’ and some of those songs are 55 years old.”

“In Texas we groove this music. I came to town with a pretty good band. I thought, ‘yeah, I know how to do this stuff.’There is something about the Texas way of doing things that is relaxed and deliciously casual. Just listen to the music of Alvin Crow; it’s swinging as hell, man.”

Hurd said that the musicians who can play music with “that Texas feel” are both a joy to hear and a joy to work with too. The modern day term, “swag” applies to country crooners who possess an air of confidence and casualness on stage. Wills had it and Strait has it.

“It’s not just the high singing. It’s not just the soaring vocals, for a guy like Johnny Bush it’s subject material, it’s word selection, it’s phrasing and it is those beautiful melodies. In your mind you hear that and you picture at full dance hall in Amarillo on a Saturday night,” Hurd said. “And all those women and cowboys all dancing together, but it doesn’t make a difference whether it’s Amarillo, San Antonio, or Austin. It’s a song, ‘Way Down Texas Way.’ (The lyrics:) ‘the dance hall fills with laughter til the early morning light.’ It’s what we do here.”

After the 1960s, city dance halls replaced rural barn dances. They had a reputation for drawing stars who played for bigger crowds. Over the past 50 years, places like the Broken Spoke have dwindled across the state. Today its hallowed halls stand as a shrine to country music.

People sometimes say that the moment that they step foot into Texas, they notice an openness that mirrors the landscape, Hurd said. “They tell me people are more open here,” he said. “People are more friendly and I tell them there is an acceptance here – no matter how some portray us as up tight stereotypical red necks, you know all those stuff. At our core, there is an acceptance. People accept people for who they are.”

Despite the fact that some people think Texas is a beautiful lush garden, it isn’t. Native Texans and those who have lived the longest periods of their lives here realize that the people of this state represent some of its greatest resources.

“It’s a mindset that we’re all in this together,” Hurd said. “If you’re one of us, I stand up for people. I hear this all the time – ‘Austin is great, but it’s a little blue island in the midst of great big dirt pile.’ That’s bullsh*t.”

Conservatives and liberals make the state what it is: independent and a curious blend of red, white and blue. “Texas is full of good people,” he said. “We’re Texas-friendly.”

The state’s rough and rocky landscape, remains undaunted by the wind and unpredictable, and at times, harsh weather.

“I’m proud to be a Texan. I am,” Hurd said.

The only thing he truly finds fault with in this state, might be the weather. The weather may be the only topic Hurd won’t talk about on stage. Like the 1923 book, The Wind, written by Dorothy Scarborough, such talk often stirs up his fury. Only political discussions raise as much dander on a native Texan’s back.

“I never saw wind in California until I moved to Texas. When I lived in Lubbock I saw sh*t being blown through intersections – like it was a parade of trash,” Hurd said. “Stuff right down in front of you going down the middle of the street – taco wrappers and other trash.”

Hurd said during his first trip to Amarillo he saw young cowboys in the dance hall dancing with 70-year-old women. Now he’s grown used to seeing similar pairings at the Broken Spoke.

“I thought it was perverse when I first saw it until I started understanding what that was all about,” he said. “It’s all about dancing and learning to dance.”

Dancing is still considered a rite of passage in Texas; often elder family members teach their younger children how to dance at the Broken Spoke. On any night Tuesday through Saturday, the Broken Spoke serves food as well as alcohol to anyone 21 years or older. Children under the age of 18, when escorted by their parents, may be admitted into the Broken Spoke. Families often bring multiple generations inside to dance.

“People sometimes tell me – ‘oh no, I wouldn’t go into the Broken Spoke. That’s a rough place.’ I have been playing here nearly 25 years and I’ve never seen a fight in this joint,” he said. “I feel sorry for the man who would start a fight in Annetta White’s bar. That would not be fun.

 

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