Many of the venues that once established Austin, Texas as the Live Music Capital of the World have been shuttered in recent years as the city deals with rapid growth and soaring real estate prices. But if the city and others have their way, the historic dancehall The Broken Spoke will not be one of those casualties.
Flanked by development in one of Austin’s most sought after districts on South Lamar, The Broken Spoke is a relic of the past if there ever was one. Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Tex Ritter, and Kitty Wells all played there. Willie Nelson and George Strait started their careers there. Living legends like Dale Watson, Alvin Crow, and others play there on a weekly basis. And even though there is no intent to sell or any specific threat to the property at the moment, the City of Austin is taking steps to make sure it’s preserved into the future.
First drafting a resolution on October 28th, and then approving it on November 3rd, the Austin City Council has put The Broken Spoke well on its way to being designated a Historic Landmark, protecting both the building and the business into the future.
It’s not just that The Broken Spoke is old. The venue is like a museum unto itself, with countless pieces of country music and Austin memorabilia inside. Dolly Parton’s 1980 movie Wild Texas Wind was filmed there, along with other films, music videos, and television shows over the years. The Broken Spoke has appeared on the covers of numerous albums, including ones from Dale Watson, and George Strait’s Honky Tonk Time Machine from 2019. Most importantly, The Spoke represents the original soul of Austin music to many.
The sponsors of the City Council resolution were Council Members Ann Kitchen, Kathie Tovo, Vanessa Fuentes and Leslie Pool and Mayor Steve Adler. Now that the resolution is passed, City Manager Spencer Cronk will review the case and pass it on to the Historic Landmark Commission and the Planning Commission, with hopes that a historical marker will be official placed on the property in April of 2023.
The resolution also importantly recognizes that “many of Austin’s creative spaces continue to be lost or displaced due to Austin’s continuing real estate boom, resulting in the loss of some of Austin’s most significant creative cultural incubators and unique Austin character.” U.S. Representative Chip Roy who represents the area where The Broken Spoke is located also spoke at the city council meeting.
“It’s important to preserve and protect the Austin we all love,” Rep. Roy said. “I don’t know exactly what that looks like, and I doubt any of y’all know exactly what that looks like—which things to preserve and protect. Not every building, not every institution can be fully protected. But if you take something like The Spoke, as one example, that has been a part of our culture and our community for now 60 odd years, what are we going to do to make sure that at least the soul of Austin stays in tact?”
The Broken Spoke was opened by Austin native James White and his stepfather Joe Baland in 1964 when James was 25-years-old and fresh out of the Army. White spotted a vacant property on South Lamar beautified with Austin’s signature oak trees, and had an idea. Short of money, he was still able to scrounge up enough to build the original front room that is now the restaurant, and named it The Broken Spoke.
A year later, they added the dancehall, with a ceiling so low some performers can’t stand straight up on the stage. Much of The Broken Spoke was built by volunteer labor and called-in favors. From the beginning, it was community coming together that made it run, with James White as the de facto Mayor, regularly working 16 hours a day at the start to keep it going, with his wife Annetta also helping to build the establishment into what it is today. When The Broken Spoke opened, beers were a nickel. They didn’t serve hard alcohol because they couldn’t afford a license until 1980. It was never fancy or nice, even when it was new. But it soon became iconic.
A big fan of country music, James White started booking anyone he could, from local names, to legends, to up-and-comers who would go on to help define country music as we know it. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys played there in 1966. A clean cut Willie Nelson first played there in 1967. From 1975 to 1982, George Strait played The Broken Spoke once a month, speaking to how it became a significant stepping stone for many performers.
Garth Brooks famously played at The Broken Spoke in 2017 as part of a surprise SXSW show. in 2021 when The Rolling Stones were touring through Austin, Mick Jagger made sure to visit it as a premier Austin landmark.
James White passed away in January of 2021, but the business remains in operation and under the ownership of the family.