James White's Formula for Success
"All right ladies and gentlemen, at this time I'd like to welcome y'all to the Broken Spoke, the last of the true Texas dance halls and damn sure proud of it. All right! We ain't fancy, but we are darn sure country and the good news is we ain't changin' nothin'. We ain't gonna get none of them hangin' fern baskets on our ceiling, we ain't gonna get none of that Pierre water out here. We serve very few Piña Coladas, but I tell you what we do got: We got cold beer. We got good whiskey. We are the home of the best chicken fried steak in town and we got good country music -- we've got Alvin Crow & the Pleasant Valley Boys, all right! And last but not least, we have good lookin' girls to dance with. Let's hear it for the girls out here, all right!"
-- from James White's live intro to "Broken Spoke Legend," recorded by Alvin Crow on his Pure Country album, released in 1988 on Broken Spoke records.
Here's a novel formula for success: Take one lifelong love, country music, combine it with another one, family, bring them both together in a place less than a mile from your birthplace, and there, build a wooden-floored saloon complete with a generous-sized dance hall out back. Stir in lots of hard work, cream gravy, Lone Star symbolism, a few country legends, and stand back -- your little watering hole has just become a budding international icon without sacrificing any of its round-the-corner charm. Opening on November 10, 1964 -- a mere two months after James White got out of the Army, the Broken Spoke featured 25-cent beer and a toddler cavorting amongst the swingin' doors, jukebox, and some barstools: Terri White, eldest daughter of James and wife Annetta. Today, their youngest daughter Ginny studies management at Southwest Texas State University, and the bright-eyed two-year-old barely avoiding whacking her head on the tables is one Mollee Jo Montague, Terri's daughter. Mollee Jo likes Sesame Street sure enough, but she'll be two-stepping long before she learns to say "Sing & Snore Ernie." It's practically in her blood.
James White: "Ginny was about 11 days old the first time I brought her up here and I introduced her to Ernest Tubb."
Annetta White: "Whose big comment was, `She was born smack dab in the middle of country music.'"
James: "Every time Ernest Tubb would come here, he'd always sing a song for little Ginny. Same thing when I used to book George Strait out here, he signed a poster for Ginny."
Annetta: "And we've got a picture over there with Terri with Willie Nelson when she was like 11."
Terri White Montague: "How old was I when I met Ernest Tubb? Five?
Terri: "Dad took me back on his bus."
James: "Yeah, big bus."
Terri: "Ernest Tubb was the nicest man. He sat me in his lap and was very kind. Willie Nelson is a very nice man. The Texas Playboys, they were so sweet. They'd sing me a song: `Oh, let's sing that little girl a song.'"
Famous people like the Spoke just as much as regular folks. This probably has something to do with the fact that they get treated just like regular folks. Annetta says Clint Eastwood "danced with anyone who asked him" while visiting the club during the A Perfect World shoot here in Austin; in town making Hope Floats, Harry Connick, Jr. sat in with multiple bands on multiple instruments. Dwight Yoakam, relaxing from The Newton Boys, came in and jammed one night; Robert Duvall, Gregory Peck, Troy Aikman, and Loni Anderson (sans Burt) have all paid their respects. Not all celebrities are as lucky, though. Sam Shepard eventually succumbed to the autograph hounds, and handlers had Randy Travis in and out before he hardly had time to sop any gravy.
"He came to do a TV show out here, right at this table here," says James. "He was eating a chicken fried steak and they kept on hurrying him up, so he just walked out the door eating a chicken fried steak as he left."
"I told him, `Take it with you, bless your heart,'" continues Annetta. "`You don't even get to finish your meal,' and he mailed the plate back. We have it in the Tourist Trap room; it says, `Thanks for the great chicken fried steak -- Randy Travis.' I was amazed when I opened this package and there's our plate back."
Sometimes what takes place at the Spoke profoundly alters the course of Texas history. "James introduced Darrell Royal to Willie, right here, for the first time," says Annetta, proudly.
"[Royal] came in and told me he wanted to meet Willie Nelson," recounts James, "so I brought him over there, and they went out and partied all night 'til six in the morning. The next time I saw Willie, he was on the sideline singing `Turn Out the Lights, the Party's Over' because Texas lost. Shortly after that, he moved to Austin."
Sometimes the only histories that are altered are the Whites'.
James: "Ginny learned how to walk right here at the Broken Spoke. She used to have a little blue motorcycle electric car that zoomed around the tables out here. Now we have grandchildren that come out here."
Annetta: "Terri's oldest one is fixing to be 15 next Tuesday, and she comes out here and waits on these tables just about as good as anybody."
Ginny: "Even when I'm off work, I end up here. I have more fun up here. All your friends work up here. I work with all the girls and we've all become really good friends and that's where I want to hang out is up here."
Terri: "My mom says it best. When families come here, you pay your cover charge for your children. It's cheaper than a babysitter, and they have more fun."
Annetta: "All the kids leave crying. They don't want to leave."
Communists don't want to leave, either. Once a Russian delegation decided to spread some rubles around the Lone Star State. As they were leaving, headed back to a Soviet Union that would become Russia again in mere weeks, a Dallas writer asked a delegate which spot struck him as being the deepest in the heart of Texas. The Alamo? Nope. The Dallas Cowboys? Guess again. It was the Spoke.
Seems that because of Stalin, the Russian wasn't terribly impressed by the Cradle of Texas Liberty's body count (one could, presumably, say the same of then-Poke-coach Jimmy Johnson). But that chicken fried steak, that country music... That could be the reason an Associated Press brief about a Spoke benefit for Willie's IRS troubles made it all the way into the English-language paper The China News. Word gets around.
Annetta: "Ann Richards has been here. George W. Bush was here. We've had three governors, four governors. Now we've heard, I don't know if it's true, but Alvin Crow said that George Bush, Sr. was here one time playing the drums. Now I don't remember it, but Alvin swears he was.
Ginny: "Before he was president, I'm sure."
James: "We had the queen's entourage. That was a big deal. They called me up from the paper and said, `[The entourage] wants to come here. What are we gonna do?' I said, `Well, we'll give 'em chicken fried steaks and get Alvin Crow.' The first song he played was `Fired Our Guns and the British Kept a-Comin' -- `The Battle of New Orleans.'"
Annetta: "The Brits, the biggest comment they made was, `They hold their women and their beer bottles the same way -- by the neck.' And they didn't like our cold beer, either."
James: "They wanted room temperature."
Grumbling Brits aside, most everybody who passes through the Spoke's doors gets taken care of just fine. (A photographer for Coke did, so the Spoke wound up in that ubiquitous torch-carrying commercial for the last Olympics.) That's why Dale Watson, the Derailers' Tony Villanueva, and Crow let their young'uns roam freely about the premises, and why the guiding rule of Annetta's kitchen (open 11:30am) is "I wouldn't serve anything I wouldn't eat myself." The Spoke succeeds because the Whites offer customers no less than they would expect themselves. And because they have each other.
James: "It's good to have your family here, because you can trust your family with running your business, and you can depend on 'em, and you know where to find 'em. Some of these waitresses, they're here for one or two days and you don't see 'em again, and you don't know what the hell happened to them."
Annetta: "We're really lucky. A lot of our help stays a long time. And they're very loyal to us."
Ginny: "Not only are we immediate family, but everybody that works here over a certain amount of time becomes your family."
Annetta: "We take all our girls in, kind of like they're just our daughters. One of 'em's been here eight years, one's been here seven. They stay a long time."
Ginny: "They're the only bosses that'll let their employees come over and sleep on the couch if they need to, or help 'em out if they have financial problems..."
Annetta: "...Go pick 'em up if they have a flat. You gotta take care of your own." n