Crossroads at the Broken Spoke

Michael Adams

In the early 60s, James M. White decided to build a honky-tonk that would provide people like him with a place where they could hear the kind of music he liked. What he got, eventually, was a dance hall honored by the state Senate, filmed by a Japanese camera crew making a documentary on American culture for its exchange students, rented out as a meeting hall by the National Historical Society, venerated by Entertainment magazine as the “Best Dance Hall in the Nation,” and annually visited by a tour-bus load of western-dressed Germans on their “cowboy” club’s pilgrimage to the heart of authentic Texas. How did this happen? Even James M. White isn’t sure.

What is sure is that the Broken Spoke, as cited by Texas State Highways magazine, soon became not just the best honky-tonk in Texas, but something close to a shrine.  Yet honky-tonk isn’t exactly accurate. When Hollywood’s in town, it’s the chic place for their after-filming rap parties. When the Legislature’s in session, senators and representatives meet there on Tuesday nights to dance, drink, and mingle with the salt of the earth. When NBC news was seeking an answer to their unknowingly provincial question “What is a Texan?” they needed only three photographs—the Capitol building, The University of Texas campus (a studious book-reading coed below a bronze longhorn steer) and the Broken Spoke Saloon—the third in the trinity that makes up the Holy Body Texas.

What lured and lures the foreign, the popular, and the powerful to one of Texas’ best and last honky-tonks is not just the love of country music and the simple pleasure of the Texas two-step, but the nostalgic lure of the mythic past. A good hat, rugged boots, and a fluid fiddle can carry you back to a simpler time—a time when there were clear distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, up and out, love and loss and where, in the lyrics, one could always find simple truths (“Every time you throw some dirt you lose a little ground”), simple fantasy (“Heaven’s just a sin away”), simple psychology (“You’re so good when you’re bad”) and simple emotion (“Walk out backwards so I’ll think you’re coming in”). In an increasingly fragmented world, one could find simple tradition at the Broken Spoke.

The sense of tradition at “The Spoke” was a deliberate goal. When James M. White opened up the Broken Spoke as a café in 1964 and then added the dance hall in 1966, he wanted to create a sense of the past. After all, he was part of Texas tradition.

His great-great-grandfather arrived in 1836 to help fight for Texas independence. His grandfather was a Texas Ranger and Indian fighter, as was an uncle who was killed pursuing an Army deserter in the Piney Woods of East Texas. Music was always a part of their life, his maternal grandfather clearing out the top room in his general store in Oakhill, a community just south of Austin his grandfather helped name, and his friends carrying up their fiddles or guitars where they would play dance music all Saturday night. Men, being gentlemen, did their drinking outside in front of the buggies. Having heard country music all his life, either in bars where his father was a bouncer, or at places like the Moose Head, where his father now a deputy constable, would take his family, James M. White wanted to capture the atmosphere of the 40s and 50s and provide a place where people like himself could hear good Texas music every week. Without a blueprint and recapping what was left of a foundation sitting on a vacant lot, James and his wife Annetta built the Broken Spoke in a month and a half, holding their grand opening on November 10, 1964. Any dancing was done after serving hours in the dining area they would clear away. Two years later they christened the dance floor with the music of Johnny Rex, and, like Johnny’s, the very connotations of the names of the bands to follow would suggest just what James White wanted to hear:  Travis and the Westerners, Bill Darcy and the Melody Drifters, D. J. Burrows and the Western Melodies (paid 32$ a night). Soon bigger names would follow:  Ernest Tubs, Bob Wills, Tex Ritter, Ray Price, Roy Acuff, Kitty Wells, Willie Nelson, George Strait. If you wanted to hear real country music, in a real Texas dance hall, the place to be was the Broken Spoke.

Not insignificantly, the Broken Spoke dance hall began on the edge of town. It was a kind of swinging door right on the border between country and city, denizens of each needing a temporary peek into the other’s world. The ranchers and farmers, tired or resigned by routine and conformity, arrived seeking escape or companionship, the pleasure of live music and, more personally, the lively dancing somehow more charged by the pull of gravity from a permissive city.  The city man, worn down by pressure, deadlines, traffic, and surrounded by plastic and chrome, sought the simple, unpretentiousness of it all (sinking ceiling, raw wood, stale aroma of the past, the down-home gingham of the farm kitchen, the warm and easy crowdedness of a family of strangers). The same door swings a different way for each.  In this sense, James M. White’s place became something unintentional—As Ernest Tubbs’ rhythm guitarist Cal Smith might say—“a place somewhere between lust and sitting home watching TV.”

The single country man or boy didn’t need to change into a costume, only wash his rural clothes before he wandered into a dance hall with his hopeful fantasy hidden from his friends—and at times even himself.  For the single city man, changing costumes was part of the need The Spoke satisfied. He could pitch aside his three-piece suit and tie, tug on his boots and jeans, crown himself with his store-bought hat and enter a different world, not just literally but metaphorically, for here the little boy who once dressed up like Roy Rogers and roamed the high sierras on a stick horse emerges from his Maverick or Pinto or Mustang as the Marlboro Man Incarnate. 

But most of the clientele was not stray slacks but couples, even families—beer drinking Germans, Methodists, and other liberal religions that didn’t see the Devil’s hand in brew and dancing–that made it a kind of tribal outing.  After chicken-fried steak (plenty of gravy) or Tex-Mex (plenty of grease), the parents and grandparents would dance while the children played bumper pool or pinball, or even danced a time or two themselves—usually reluctantly, usually with some old, age-spotted relative, or worse, a lower form of life, a brother or sister.

The very nature of the dances also held their lure, for within the honky-tonk moaning with the steel guitar, you did not find the anarchy of freedom in partnerless modern dancing, especially popular in the late sixties, but rather the specific and traditional movements of the two-step or polka, as you always moved the same counterclockwise direction around the floor. Any idiosyncratic style had to come within the sameness of movement. Thus, the dances gave the couples the security of conformity and the eccentricity of individuality—a safe and useful kind of pleasure.

It wasn’t long, however, that the city grew past the saloon and the country moved farther away, and though everything changed around it, the Broken Spoke was still the swinging door on the edge. And into this crossroads dance hall kept pouring the society that surrounded it.

Eventually, in the early 70s, James White began booking country outlaw bands and local rock/country/folk bands like Marcia Ball, and for the first time cowboy hippies and long-haired cowboys made righteous by Willie Nelson began entering his doors, and to his surprise the unironed tie-dyed shirts and pearl-studded and starched western shirts crowded the dance floor with only a little friction now and then. The music was more Texas than Nashville now, but the image stayed the same. And The Spoke was becoming part of the Austin tradition of tolerance and good fun that would eventually and kindly be bumper-stickered into “Keep Austin Weird.”  Though more and more people who entered the swinging doors didn’t sound like Texans (calling grocery sacks bags, selling inSURANCE instead of INsurance, buying ceMENT instead of SEEment, mispronouncing the city streets—Burr-Nétt for Burnet, Guadalupé for Guadalupe) and though many lacked the bone structure to give the proper slough during the Texas two-step, such obvious outsiderness didn’t matter inside these walls. And therein lay The Spoke’s hidden therapy. Here anyone could feel safe.

The power of such an image, not limited to social hierarchy or geographical heritage, and the location of its shrine—amidst the state Capitol, the state’s flagship university, a city beginning to swell with newcomers—inevitably drew a variety of pilgrims, making the Broken Spoke not just a haven for cowboys and cowgirls (urban or rural, drugged or drugstore), but a social crossroads that attracted Cadillacs and pickups, the rich and the poor, bankers and bikers, the white collar and blue collar, the brie and barbecue set. And this social crossroads in itself became another kind of lure. On any Saturday night, especially when a popular Texas band like Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley boys is there, you will see them:

FFA sweethearts poured like concrete into their jeans, beefy young bucks with big white hats, a doctor in turquoise bola, a state worker in satin blouse (a sequined scene of  yellow cactus blooms), a professor in lizard-skinned boots and new jeans, a Jesuit priest with his named branded on the back of his belt—“Thomas” (Aquinas or the doubting one?), Dell computer suburbanites leading newcomers into this haven and pointing and whispering like the know-it-all tour guides they are, university students, both foreign and domestic, out for an evening of quasi-slumming and just unreflective, if noisy, pleasure.

And over there’s an ex-Texas ranger bouncingly waltzing his fragile granddaughter, his hawk eyes guarding her from the reckless high schoolers dancing the way they drive; and over there, a young couple from Manor doing all their special turns and twists among the more sedate dancers; and there a plump middle-aged couple in matching shirts—western piping of a tight-hatted cowboy bucked high in the sky by the bronco with a belly full of springs. And there a covey of small-town young couples dancing as a group, smiling those incandescent smiles not yet strained with age–or experience. And there, Fred Astair graduates lightly and swiftly floating around the sawdusted floor like Fred and Ginger, almost ethereal, too ideal and Hollywoodish for the earthly needs of the stumbling and graceless. And there some newlyweds (but Spoke old-timers) blowing minnow kisses and willfully giving into their publicly private smiles.  And there some cocky high school boys and girls, obviously refuges from some more sanitary party, the boys in starched jeans and white shirts, the girls in floral dresses and high heels about to become instruments of acceptable torture. And over there a group of girls’-night outers, married women, some halfway from it, clumped in a back corner, their malelessness a magnetic pull for a few surveillant bachelors (faux or authentic) out on the prowl. And there an old couple, Friday night regulars, she with her eyes shut, her face as peaceful as a Madonna there on his shoulders, he holding her hand like a tiny bird as he leads her once more through the familiar pattern that lets them feel at once lost and loved. And there, the recent widower, sitting alone at “their” table (south side middle, closest to the dance floor), occasionally consoled (and even teased) by the waitresses who know him well, and he frequently retreating into nostalgia as he sips his beer and smiles poignantly at the color and movement of life on the dance floor.  There are a few identifiables like these, but for the most part it’s impossible to tell where someone comes from.  And this is part of the comfort The Spoke unintentionally provides.

On occasion the real thing comes in. Some cowboy from a local rodeo, his number still on his back, his spine straight with pride (his cutting horse once more turning on a dime and giving back five cents in change), his young, wasp-waisted wife or girlfriend in silk shirt and designer jeans, sure to keep her eyes away from the many eyes she feels inspecting her–like judges at the day’s livestock show. And from time to time some rich and handsome couple in tux and gown will wander in and find the darkest corner and, never dancing, sip beer, tip big, and watch the dancers–enjoying the simple pleasure of being there AND not having to be a part of “there.”   

All this cross-pollination has its effect in time. It’s not unusual to see cowboy hat and tennis shoes, or evening dress with bright red boots, or baseball cap with ponytail dangling out the back, even straw hat and brown sandals in the summer. On Halloween you occasionally find the most bizarre mythic half-breeds—Werewolf under Stetson, Frankenstein in Tony Lamas, French maid in moccasins, clown-faced cowboy walking around with a knife in his back—is this costume or metaphor? But as diverse as the patrons are, they, ironically, come to represent another kind of truly “social” class—people from various social strata lured by a place where you can find both eccentricity and tradition.

The Broken Spoke crossroads has become such a lure that James M. White has cornered off a little museum to The Spoke itself. A kind of shrine to the myth. There under glass, you can find hats worn by Bob Wills, George Strait, Willie Nelson, and even LBJ. On the walls are plenty of photographs of James M. White with a famous crooner who’s walked through The Spoke’s doors—from Johnny Gimble to George Jones, from Kris Kristofferson to Dolly Parton. There’s an American flag that once flew over the state Capitol building, and there are citations from Delaware to Germany, and displayed bumper stickers (“I Danced at The Broken Spoke”) that, as a little note points out, have been distributed all over the world, plaques from our own state government offering its “highest esteem” and “profound gratitude” for entertaining such a “diverse clientele” and for creating one of the pre-eminent honky-tonks in Texas. And of course, the memorabilia:  a 1968 menu (hamburgers .75 cents) and a half-smoked cigar, chewed on by Bob Wills on March 27, 1939.

Although The Spoke has seen the changes in the world outside waltz in and out of its more constant landscape—long-haired outlaw cowboys, cosmic cowboys, urban cowboys (John Travolta was brought here to see what a real Texas honky-tonk was like)—things are pretty much just as they were more than a quarter a century ago—same ranch curtains (grazing horses) in the restaurant, same chicken-friend steak, same bottled Thousand Island dressing on a wedge of lettuce, same pool tables and shuffle boards right there among the dining tables.  And in the dance hall is the same low and precariously loose ceiling, the same metal folding chairs, red gingham table cloths, the same scattered neon beer signs, the Texas flag behind the bandstand, the same stagnant perfume of stale beer and smoke, the same collection of myths and mavericks. It’s still a place where one can dance and actually feel both a sense of community and that self-reliant individuality of the cowboy on the open range. Too often for many, both seem to be lost in the world outside.

This sense of belonging is strongest during the dance that has become a tradition on Friday and Saturday nights—the cotton-eyed Joe. It’s the moment when all the dancers lock arm in arm, or arm around waist in chorus rows and kick and shout their way around the dance floor. It is a time when you have permission to touch a stranger, and strangers have permission to touch you, and, even if it is transitory, just for a moment, as you shuffle around the floor, you have a sense of togetherness and tradition. The wheel is not broken here at the crossroads, behind the swinging door that still slaps back and forth on the edge—between past-present, city-country, us-them. Eternally on the edge.

Literary Austin, TCU Press