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The Broken Spoke: the last true Honky Tonk in Texas

The Broken Spoke: the last true Honky Tonk in Texas

I’VE VISITED SOME iconic places in my time. The Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Arena, Sun Studio and Johnny Cash’s Childhood Home all stand out as highlights. But up there with all of them is a place I visited largely by chance whilst working in Austin, Texas back in June 2014. That place was The Broken Spoke. 

It was the authenticity of the Broken Spoke that stood out. It wasn’t a pre-planned visit; I wasn’t there as a tourist; I was there simply to relax and enjoy myself on a Saturday night after a busy week working on a Texas trade show. 

My colleague and I had already visited Austin’s 6th Street, aka ‘The Live Music Capital of the World’, and although we’d enjoyed ourselves, I was disappointed not to have come across a ‘proper’ country music bar. Being from the UK, I wasn’t entirely sure what a ‘proper’ country music bar was but when I mentioned this to someone at the exhibition they suggested I go to the Broken Spoke. I owe them a debt of gratitude. 

‘The Spoke’ is located on South Lamar Boulevard, about three miles South of Austin’s 6th Street, and it is open five days a week, Tuesday through to Saturday. 

The colourful roadside sign outside the venue beckons you inside – and what a welcome awaits! 

Within seconds you are in a ‘proper’ country music bar – a friendly welcome, neon lights, a pool table and juke box in the corner, chicken fried steak on the menu and a beaten old saddle on the wall – the Broken Spoke looks like a honkytonk, smells like a honkytonk and sounds like a honkytonk. 

Opened in 1964 initially as a café by the late James White, then 25 and fresh out of the army, the venue took its name from two things White loved: the James Stewart movie Broken Arrow and wagon wheels. Whether the latter was a reference to the famous chocolate confection or the wooden circles that get stagecoaches from A to B I am unsure.  

One thing is for certain though, right from the off the Spoke’s jukebox – packed full of Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb and Ray Price classics – proved an instant hit and before long people were dancing in the aisles. As a great supporter of the local music scene, White also let local bands play, initially for tips but then, as business picked up, he paid them. The pool tables were moved to create more space and two years later, spying an opportunity to attract even more customers, White added a dedicated dance floor at the back of the venue where a lumberyard used to stand. Before long some of the acts who’d been playing on the jukebox – including the legendary Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – were playing at the Spoke in person.  

Although his establishment was named after something broken, White’s ‘down-home’ dining and dancing formula proved a resounding success and if something’s not broken, why fix it? Subsequently, from 1966 onwards he and his wife Annetta held off making any significant alterations to the Spoke helping it to acquire its deserved nickname of ‘the last true honky tonk in Texas’. 

On the evening I visited, the Spoke’s juke box was silent so as not to compromise the ambience created by the talented folk duo performing in the corner.  

My colleague and I sat ourselves down at a table and enjoyed a couple of chicken fried steaks which we polished off in no time. A jug of beer in and with more diners looking for seats, we moved across to the bar area where we struck up a conversation with a fellow customer. 

“What a great place this is,” I commented. “I’ve been desperate to find a proper honky tonk all week and it look’s like I’ve finally hit the jackpot.” 

“More than that,” he replied. “Dale Watson’s on later. A proper country singer – the best in the business. You couldn’t have picked a better night. There’ll be hundreds in.”

 I looked around. Although sizeable, the Spoke didn’t look like a place that could accommodate hordes of people. 

“He’s playing in the dance hall out back,” he added. “I suggest you grab yourself a seat while you can.” 

So taken in was I by the atmosphere of the place, I hadn’t noticed the door through to the dance hall, nor the mini-museum off to the left.  

Known as ‘The Tourist Trap’ the museum is crammed full of music memorabilia such as a signed poster promoting George Strait’s first appearance at the Spoke on June 24th 1982.

When he was starting out, Strait and his band played the Spoke once a week for seven years and he loved the Spoke so much he used a picture of it on the cover of his 2019 album Honky Tonk Time Machine. 

I wish I’d spent longer in the museum but I wasn’t there for the tourist experience. I was there to enjoy a proper cowboy night out in the heart of Texas. And the Broken Spoke was delivering. 

“There’s a $12 cover charge,” said the lady on the dance hall door who was dressed in boots and a checked blouse. “For that you’ll get to see Dale Watson and if you’d like before that you can join in the dance class that’s just started.” 

The first thing I noticed about the dance hall was its low ceiling, something musicians who’ve played there say adds to the atmosphere. The second thing was a gentleman stood on a chair trying to get the air conditioning to work. This was James White. I had no idea he was famous throughout Texas. Not only was he the proprietor of the Broken Spoke, he was a decent singer himself having performed on stage with the likes of Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel and the Sons of the Pioneers.

Some people give off the vibe of being a decent person and James White was one such person. He reminded me a lot of my grandfather. He was polite, welcoming and commented that he would have the air con working in no time. At the end of the evening he shook my hand and posed happily for some pictures. I still use one of them as the background image on my Twitter profile. 

But it wasn’t just James who was friendly. All of his staff – including his daughter Terri who was teaching the dance class and all of the bartenders and waitresses were just as nice. 

And then Dale Watson took the stage. It’s hard to put into words how good his performance was. Thankfully I took some footage of Dale and his band performing their song Freewheelin’. This footage, featuring Dale on guitar and vocals, Don Powlak on pedal steel, Chris Crepps on stand-up bass and backing vocals and Mike Bernal on drums, can be viewed below :-    

Fantastic music, good food, great beer, outstanding company and a unique venue. The evening I spent at the Broken Spoke flew by. Even my colleague, who is no great lover of country music, thoroughly enjoyed himself. James White once said something along the lines of millionaires and ditch diggers can all have a good time at the Broken Spoke. On Saturday 28th June 2014, I certainly did.

TAKE FIVE!

Five fascinating facts about the Broken Spoke

  • Despite being able to command massive appearance fees, Willie Nelson performs at the Broken Spoke for free. Why? Because in 1991 when Willie faced financial ruin due to an unpaid tax bill, James White – who classed Willie as a friend – put an empty gallon-sized pickle jar on the bar asking for donations to help him. The gesture made headlines far and wide and money started pouring in, not just from the Spoke’s regulars but also from people in the army, jails and Indian reservations. Willie was so grateful at Christmas 1991 he turned up with Kris Kristofferson, Joe Ely and Alvin Crow to perform a now legendary Broken Spoke concert.
  • As well as acquiring the mantle “the last true honky tonk in Texas”, the Broken Spoke has also been referred to as “the country and western version of Cheers.”
  • Lots of famous people have hung out at the Spoke including Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall and Quentin Tarantino. Perhaps its most famous patron though is local cowboy Rowdy, a bandana wearing dummy who sits quietly at a table in the restaurant area. If you look closely you might even spot him on one of the pictures above. I had a good 20 minute conversation with Rowdy at the end of my visit and I can confirm he’s a thoroughly nice chap who talks a lot of sense.
  • Superstar musicians who have appeared at the Broken Spoke over the years include Tex Ritter, Roy Acuff, The Chicks, Jerry Jeff Walker, Ernest Tubb, Grandpa Jones and Garth Brooks. Dolly Parton also shot scenes from her movie Wild Texas Wind there.
  • In addition to having the approval of Texas State Legislature which has commended it for its quality service, the Broken Spoke was given an informal seal of approval by members of Queen Elizabeth II’s entourage who visited the honky tonk back in the 2010s and were said to have had a fantastic time.
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