Waltz Across Texas
As development encroaches on the Broken Spoke, rest assured there will never be another like it
"Quick! Quick! Slooow."
About five dozen men and women boot-scoot across the sawdust-free dance floor of the Broken Spoke early on this summer Saturday night, led by Terry White, one of the owner's two daughters. Couples spin counterclockwise in varying degrees of proficiency, clumsy but good-hearted shuffling and stumbling.
"Don't pick your feet up!"
White's a petite, fiftysomething platinum blonde with a perpetual tan and a Madonna-style headset in her spiky hair. She sasses instructions with the authority of a drill instructor, striding across the floor, looking at feet and positions, and encouraging the occasional couple not to be terrified of the two-step.
"I once taught 45 Korean men to dance," White assures a tentative twosome as she adjusts the man's arm on his partner's lower back. "No women."
By the time the instructor wraps her lesson, Alvin Crow tunes his fiddle for his band's first set of the night.
In almost any other club, dance lessons might be considered a gimmick. At the Broken Spoke, it's tradition – for locals, tourists, and celebrities alike. White had no compunction about correcting Robert Plant's form, for instance. And yet, country dancing seems to be a nearly extinct tradition, even as a no-brainer in cultivating future generations of audiences. Not that it's any defense against property development.
That's the cloud looming over the Broken Spoke ever since the inevitable upscaling of South Lamar began in earnest last decade. Since the venue doesn't own the site, it's at the mercy of the landowners around it. Plans and promises have a way of vanishing in the face of progress.
Where Do You Come From, Cotton-Eyed Joe?
Popular music as a live commodity remains a relatively recent advancement, only as old as recorded music itself. Before vocal microphones, most music was listened to or danced to as instrumentals, since musicians drowned out the singers. Vocalists coming to the fore also provided marquee names for the public to seek out.
Huge technological advances in the wake of both world wars last century saw developments as staggering as today's: radio, recordings, film. In the Forties, waves of people moved to the city, which offered better jobs and pay. Many took to the urban lifestyle and enjoyed the new sounds of jazz and big band, while still loving the country, folk, Western, and bluegrass they'd been raised on in more rural settings.
That was especially true in Texas, where dance halls were as much a part of city life as country life. It was a life James White wanted when he opened the Broken Spoke at 3201 S. Lamar in 1964. While the world famous honky-tonk sits inside the city limits now, White likes pointing out that it was outside town when it opened.
"Bob Wills walked through that front door wearing a cowboy hat and smoking a cigar with his fiddle under his arm."
That's one of White's favorite anecdotes. Along with booking the king of Western swing in 1965, he's quick to rattle off the club's greatest hits: Ernest Tubb, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton. Two dusty rooms just off the dance floor house a museum of Austin country music according to the Spoke.
"I booked Alvin Crow in 1973, same year Freda & the Firedogs played here – Marcia Ball's band," recalls White about the capital's seminal cosmic cowboy days. "Freda & the Firedogs came in to play a benefit for Lloyd Doggett and drew 500 people. I figured any hippie band that could draw 500 people to a fundraiser, I better get back. Then along come Asleep at the Wheel after that, Doug Sahm. Gary P. Nunn, too."
The Spoke played a crucial role in the development of progressive country in the early Seventies, booking nontraditional bands alongside traditional idols. The opposite was true at such clubs as Soap Creek, Antone's, and the Armadillo, which were counterculture venues catering to hip youth by booking elderly bluesmen, aging folkies, and country legends. The Broken Spoke stood for traditional country values, and the twain didn't always meet.
"We had a lot of rednecks and cowboys here, and they resented the longhairs coming out in their Roman sandals," chuckles White. "I got a kick out of the way the hippies dressed."
Crow found himself with a booking conflict in 1975, and recommended White hire a San Marcos act called Ace in the Hole. White took a shine to the band and their handsome, affable singer – George Strait. They played weekly at the venue for seven years, making their reputation at a place that a few years later resisted the urge to go urban cowboy and stuck with locals.
Like legions before him, Jeff Hughes arrived in Austin for its university (where he roomed with Fastball's Miles Zuniga), but found his calling behind a guitar. When he started playing in the Eighties, Hughes looked up to the Wagoneers, who helped rally the decade's trad country movement as embodied by Dwight Yoakam. Hughes' subsequent genre upstarts, Chaparral, became a running favorite at the Spoke, and today holds down a regular slot.
"[Wagoneers frontman] Monte Warden was a big supporter and introduced me to [Soap Creek owner] Carlyne Majer, who published a couple of my songs and gave me some walking-around money," recalls Hughes, connecting the dots to his career. "I dove into the punk rock scene when I got here, and you can't deny all those influences. But Jerry Jeff Walker is the reason I play guitar. One year, we played that Terlingua album all summer long."
Like veteran, local draws Dale Watson, the Derailers, and Cornell Hurd, Jesse Dayton pulls in a Spoke crowd as much there to see him as they are to dance. Dayton's tough image, won by playing for Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, among others, puts him comfortably in the dance hall's Thursday night spot. He's no less at home working with Rob Zombie on horror movie and music projects.
"I left a Rob Zombie tour twice in the middle of the tour to come back here and [play my slot]," attests the guitarist-singer. "People were like, 'Where are you going?' And I was like, 'I have to play the Broken Spoke.' They didn't understand.
"James is understanding, but somebody'll take my gig if I don't go back! And if you don't keep them on the dance floor, you don't keep the gig."
On a Saturday night like tonight, with Alvin Crow as bandleader, it's a history lesson. His band of gypsy journeymen – guitarist John X. Reed, steel player Herb Steiner, bassist Jason Crow, and muscle drummer John Chandler – swing, sway, shake, and weep. Crow's first set incorporates a swath of Texas country from Bob Wills to Doug Sahm. Ernest Tubb's tender favorite "Waltz Across Texas" works its storybook charms as if for the first time.
SoLa, SoFi, BroSpo
South Lamar's ongoing facelift begins as far back as the Nineties, around the time First Thursdays started up on South Congress. Both South Lamar and South First carry over the hipster SoCo vibe with their own nicknames of SoLa and SoFi. That's good for most businesses, but keeping the Spoke rolling doesn't require the latest in drinks or fashion.
While James White defines figurehead, "In charge of BS and PR," he jokes, most agree that his wife Annetta cracks the whip on the Spoke. Born and raised in Austin – the couple both graduated from Travis High School – Annetta's a no-nonsense blonde with bright blue-green eyes. Her recipes built the Spoke's beloved menu and when it comes to expressing opinions, duck.
"I can't believe that the city would let a business like us that's paid their taxes, never been late, done what we're supposed to, been good citizens, and they won't give us an entrance to our own business? They stood on my porch and said it was a 'shared entrance.' Shared, my foot!"
One day, when Annetta White drove in to find her new "shared" driveway completely blocked, she did the natural thing.
"I blocked them in."
For most of its 50 years, the barn-red dance hall stood unattached in a parking lot with two pickup-truck wide entrances and 360-degree access around the club for parking on any side of it. That included an unlit field that invited all manner of revelry, fistfights, and mischief – not to mention actual parking – and a band load-in area that used to be dirt and grass and now has a sidewalk and fencing. That you can't drive around the Spoke anymore was an expected inconvenience.
"But everything in the front was supposed to stay the same," complains James. "I wanted my dirt parking lot. I don't want no damn sidewalk. I had to move the sign. Had to move the Texas Top Hands bus, and to me, that led to it getting stolen [see sidebar]. I didn't like the big corral around the oak tree. There hasn't been a fence around that tree in 50 years. It's overkill.
"I don't really even have an entrance of my own now. I share it with the apartments next door, and this afternoon at 3:30pm, I come here and a forklift is blocking the driveway. They took my [south] entrance, and they put a fence in front of my delivery gate. The beer trucks and band people, they gotta deal with all that.
"I need at least two entrances. The service station down the road has four entrances. We've got half an entrance. The Broken Spoke has been here longer than any other business. All these other businesses came after us. This was the county back then, with the city around it. That's why I got to build the Spoke the way I wanted to. The city of Austin told me, 'Rest assured, there'll never be another Broken Spoke.'"
Don't It Make You Wanna Dance
Ginny White Peacock stands behind the bar amidst the Saturday night hubbub counting change and looking completely unruffled. Drinks made, beers poured, food cooked, tables served, tables bussed, tabs paid – this will be a typical night at the Broken Spoke and she's got it under control. With her sweet face and warm smile, James and Annetta White's youngest daughter is the definition of Texas hospitality while being an efficient manager, one of several jobs she juggles at the bar she grew up in. James Lamar White Peacock, her son, may one day greet guests at the dance hall door like his grandfather.
"It breaks my heart," confesses Jessie Mathieson, a five-year employee of the Spoke. "We do our best to keep the integrity inside these walls, but when you can't drive into our parking lot or have to walk through development just to get to the front door, it's changed the character of the place."
James White plays it typically politic.
"I say this is like coming to the Alamo, with all those big buildings around it.
"By November, we'll get access to the parking and a walkway across Lamar with a red light. They say they're gonna start leasing apartments here by August. There's gonna be 300 apartments, half are double occupancy, so you got around 500 people plus retail space and visitors.
"I'm looking forward to it being done and completed so I can see how many people I can lure over here to the Broken Spoke. Hopefully, they all like chicken-fried steak and country music."
And if they don't know how to two-step, Terry White can teach 'em.