The Broken Spoke honky tonk is just about the most authentic thing you can still find within the city limits of Austin, TX. And now it’s long-time owner, mascot, patron saint, and a man that has been a major booster for music in the region and the stepping stone for many major careers has passed on.
An Austin native, James White opened The Broken Spoke over 50 years ago in 1964 when he was 25-years-old and fresh out of the Army. He 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. Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter, Ernest Tubb, and Kitty Wells are some of the other country legends that played The Broken Spoke in their time.
Later The Broken Spoke would become the launching pad for new country legends, from Dale Watson, Alvin Crow, Jesse Dayton, Weldon Henson, Bobby Flores, Cornell Hurd, Jason Roberts, Mike and the Moonpies, to The Derailers and many more. From 1975 to 1982, George Strait played The Broken Spoke once a month, speaking to how it became a significant stepping stone for many. Garth Brooks also famously played there in 2017 as part of a surprise SXSW show.
The Broken Spoke has also been featured in film on multiple occasions, including the documentary Honky Tonk Heaven: The Legend of the Broken Spoke, and the 2020 Sony Pictures wide release, Yellow Rose. The Broken Spoke has also been featured on the cover of multiple albums, including a record from Dale Watson, and George Strait’s 2019 Honky Tonk Time Machine.
The Broken Spoke is not going anywhere soon. It still sits among a few oak tress, with towering condominium complexes crowding it on both its sides among Austin’s massive growth. James White’s daughter Ginny White-Peacock still remains at the helm. But The Broken Spoke won’t feel the same without the wide smile, plump belly, and Western shirt with scarf visage of James White standing there to greet artists and patrons alike.
James White had recently underwent major heart surgery, and was struggling to recover. He was 81-years-old.