Tag Archives: Austin history

Craig Hillis at Southwestern Historical Quarterly reviewed my book

16 Oct

The Broken Spoke: Austin’s Legendary Honky-Tonk. By Donna Marie Miller.
(College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2017. Pp. 256. Illustrations,
notes bibliography, index.)

Donna Marie Miller has written a very good and essential book. It is a
story of a native Austin family, the bar and restaurant business that patriarch
James White opened in 1964, and the countless characters both on
and off the stage who have populated this legendary honky-tonk for more
than half a century.
It is a good book because it is well researched, well organized, and well
written. Over a twenty-seven month period, Miller collected more than
one hundred oral histories from the White family and from employees,
patrons, and musicians and their representatives, thereby creating a valuable
trove of primary source data. She carefully explored the main currents
of Texas cultural history and Austin music history. Additionally, she
sought out films, videos, and audio recordings that were relevant to her
story.
Miller organized the book in seven sections, delineated by decades, and
within each section she wove together three dominant themes she calls
“braids.” The first covers local, state, and national events as they affected
the evolution of the Broken Spoke and the growth of the Austin music
scene. The “center thread” (11) depicts the life and times of the White
family, and the third braid presents the cast of characters—employees,
patrons, dancers, musicians—and their role in the story. This “braided
narrative structure” (11) enables the reader to experience the interplay
of the three story lines in a common historical setting.
Miller writes in an accessible and direct journalistic style. Her comprehensive
research is evident through her command of the material and
her free-flowing narrative. She sprinkles enough spice and lighthearted
anecdotes through the story to hold the reader’s interest and keep the
pages turning.
The Broken Spoke is an essential book because it analyzes a live music
venue, and in Texas, especially in Austin, the live music venue is the essential
cog in the wheel of our vibrant music scene. Whether a small folk club,
a rock ‘n’ roll joint, a multi-thousand seat concert hall, or a venerable
honky-tonk, these locations provide the economic bedrock upon which all
other aspects of the music scene unfold: the paychecks to musicians that
in turn underwrite managers, agents, music publishers, producers, studio
engineers, and related audio and video projects. Live music revenues
translate into musical instrument sales, advertising produced by copywriters,
graphic artists, and printing companies, and countless other commercial
enterprises that account for Austin’s multi-million dollar annual
entertainment and tourism industry. Miller successfully portrays how the
activities of the White family, the personnel and patrons at the club, and
an endless stream of musicians come together to facilitate the role that
the “Spoke” plays in the local and national music community.
Miller’s book calls the Broken Spoke “Austin’s Legendary Honky-
Tonk,” a bar, a restaurant, a “real country joint” (4), and “the last of the
true Texas dance halls” (6). It is also a home away from home for some
of country music’s biggest stars, a showcase for up and coming acts, a
blue-collar country club, an after-hours conference room for Texas legislators,
a country dance studio, a community center, and a country music
museum.
Most importantly, The Broken Spoke is a quintessential American story.
It is an authentic Norman Rockwell-like portrait of a strong, dedicated
family whose work ethic, commitment to each other, and shared vision
are now fueling a third generation. Having survived and thrived in an
extremely tough business, the Whites have nurtured a Texas tradition. The
Broken Spoke: Austin’s Legendary Honky-Tonk is an essential companion to
any student or enthusiast of Texas music and cultural history.
Austin, Texas Craig Hillis

My Broken Spoke story appears in Austin Monthly this month

16 Nov

Honky-Tonk Haven: 50 years of the iconic Broke Spoke 

By Donna Marie Miller

When James White opened the Broken Spoke in 1964, it represented the last stop for civilization 1 mile south of what then served as Austin city limits. Fifty years later the dance hall, which Entertainment Weekly voted “The best country dance hall in the nation,” still stands on South Lamar Boulevard and endures as part of a legacy of a bygone time for the city that has boomed around it.

Broken Spoke proprietor James White sat in on stage with Weldon Henson on day one of the Broken Spoke's 50th anniversary party Nov. 4, 2014.

Broken Spoke proprietor James White sat in on stage with Weldon Henson on day one of the Broken Spoke’s 50th anniversary party Nov. 4, 2014.

James White at 25-years-old began construction on the Spoke Sept. 25, 1964—the same day he received his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army. “I built it to look like the ‘40s and the ‘50s,” he says. “My parents took me to honky-tonks like this, where I always had good times. That’s why I went into this business.”

James leased land from Jay Lynn Johnson Jr., the owner of a construction business, who also helped James work on the original 32-foot wide by 60-foot long building. Meanwhile, he thought about what to call his new venture. “I started thinking about the things that tie into westerns and country. My mind was always on a wagon wheel,” he says. “Then, like a light bulb that went off in my head, I remembered a Jimmy Stewart movie called Broken Arrow. I thought, I’ll just name it the Broken Spoke.” He and his wife, Annetta, officially opened the Broken Spoke a few months later on Nov. 10, 1964.

The place became popular from the day it opened. The then one-room bar and restaurant overflowed every night of the week. “I used to bartend 16 to 17 hours a day out here,” says White. “I learned to pop two beers in each hand, and I could pop beer as fast as I could sell it.”

But folks didn’t just come for the drinks; the Spoke became known as a place to hear great music and dance the night away. White paid his first band, D.G. Burrow and the Western Melodies, $32 to play. Dancers used to push back tables to shuffle, Texas Two Step, polka and Cotton-Eyed Joe. “Girls in their best dresses danced with the guys right out the front door into the dirt parking lot and then danced right back in,” says White.

In 1965, the Whites added an extension, a 90-foot dance hall with a 65-foot stage. Legendary fiddler Bob Wills performed there in 1966, 1967 and 1968 — each time filling the Spoke to capacity with 661 people. Wills wasn’t the only legend to play the Spoke. Over the years, Ernest Tubb, Ray Price, Buck Owens, Kitty Wells, Roy Acuff, Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, George Strait, Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker have all graced its stage.

Hardship has not been a stranger to the Whites. Their roof leaked for 25 years until it was replaced in 1989. “Every time we had a good rain, we’d have to put out various containers to catch the water where it leaked,” says James. He began having heart trouble in 2000; Annetta survived breast cancer in 2005. Then on Oct. 2, 2005 a driver for the Geezinslaws Brothers band tour bus drove it through the back wall of the Broken Spoke; it took four days to remove it. Johnson, their landlord, died in 2001 and his children sold the land to Riverside Resources in 2010. Riverside in turn sold it in 2012 to Transwestern developers who began a two-year construction project surrounding the Broken Spoke that hurt its business. The Whites have endured, for the most part unscathed.

These days, folks still head to the Spoke for good music, good food and plenty of dancing. Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel, Dale Watson, Gary P. Nunn, Bruce Robison, Marsha Ball and Alvin Crow are just a few of the musicians who still perform regularly at the honky-tonk.

“It’s kind of like {Austin City Limits},” says Watson, who first sat on the stage in 1992. “It’s a place you aspire to play if you grew up in Texas and you want to play real dance halls in Austin—it’s the only one left.”

White, who just turned 75, still wears his standard uniform of Wrangler jeans, Swarovski crystal–studded Western shirts, a Gene Autry-era neckerchief, a Resistol Platinum silver belly hat and Lucchese ostrich skin boots. He greets visitors on weekends, just as he has for the past 50 years. The Whites remain in charge of all of the Broken Spoke operations, but their two daughters, Terri and Ginny, and son-in-law, Mike Peacock, help out. Terri teaches both private and group dance lessons five nights a week, while Ginny acts as the manager and her husband, Mike, tends bar and sometimes handles cover charges.

The Spoke’s iconic standing in the city has grown even more in the past few years, as two four-story, multi-use properties known as the 704 have been built around it. Now, when driving down South Lamar Boulevard, residents can literally see the juxtaposition of “new Austin” and “old Austin,” in the shadow that the buildings cast over the Spoke.

“I would have rather that everything stayed the same, but as it is I wish that I had a little more breathing room, a little more elbow room and I wish I had more parking, but I will weather the storm. We’ll teach the tenants of The 704 how to do the Texas Two Step,” he said. “We’ve already got in a lot of the people who live in The 704. They love the Broken Spoke and they come over here quite a bit already. We’ve got over 500 people to draw from, so I’m thinkin’ we’ll get a few more country music lovers and they’ll love the chicken fried steak, dancin’ the Texas Two Step and havin’ a good time.”

Still, despite the changing landscape of Austin, White says the spirit of the Broken Spoke remains the same. “We’re a place for good food, cold beer and whiskey and good lookin’ girls to dance with and that’s the way we want to keep it,” he says. “No hangin’ fern baskets, no Pierre water and no Grey Poupon. You’re gettin’ the real mustard out here, the real deal.”

Please also see Austin Monthly’s posting at: http://www.austinmonthly.com/AM/November-2014/Honky-Tonk-Haven/

The Broken Spoke celebrated its 50th anniversary with a series of special performances at the dance hall Nov. 4-8, 2014.

Please see my photo slideshow below. Thank you!

 

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