Much of old Austin and the music scene remains under threat. But one Austin institution has officially been set aside, and Lord willing, will be around for many years to come. It was a much-needed win for preservationists deep in the heart of Texas, and it came on Wednesday, April 12th, which also happened to be the birthday of the late founder James White.
Flanked by condo developments 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, Roy Acuff, 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 was no intent to sell or any specific threat to the property, the City of Austin has taken steps to make sure it’s preserved into the future.
First drafting a resolution on October 28th 2022, and then approving it on November 3rd, the Austin City Council put The Broken Spoke on the path to being designated a Historic Landmark. Then on Wednesday afternoon (4-12), it was all made official by the unveiling of the Historical Landmark plaque from The State of Texas.
“We’re still holding strong right in the middle of a fast-growing Austin. And as James always said, ‘We ain’t fancy but we’re damn sure country.’ And that is why The Broken Spoke is so beloved all over the world,” said Ginny Peacock, the daughter of James White. “You’re looking at the real Texas right now. People make a pilgrimage just to come here because there isn’t anything like this where they live. This is why it is so important to save The Broken Spoke, because there’s not another one like it.”
Along with Ginny Peacock, First Lady of Texas Cecilia Abbott spoke, as did musician Monte Warden, Donna Marie Miller who wrote the book on The Broken Spoke (literally), as well as Travis County Historical Commissioner Bob Ward.
“There are other legacy businesses in Austin. But there are few that have transcended the category to become living legends. And The Broken Spoke is a living legend in Austin, TX,” Bob Ward said. “This Texas Historical Marker is our opportunity to recognize the importance of The Broken Spoke, and what it does for our community. Because the marker not only talks about the past. But it speak to educate and inform the future.”
Bob Ward continued, “The Broken Spoke is what you think of when you think about Texas. It has changed slightly. It used to be on the edge of town. But it’s always been a cultural landmark and tourist destination, a local hangout, and a symbol for Texas music and musicians. While other places have changed, The Broken Spoke has stayed the same. So if you want to experience Texas, you come to The Broken Spoke. It will always be deep in the heart of Austin, deep in the heart of Travis County, and deep in the heart of Texas.”
Alvin Crow played a few songs on the front porch of The Spoke as hundreds of folks gathered to see the historical marker unveiling, including a few on horseback. And then the moment came all folks had been working very hard at and waiting a long time for.
Congratulations to the Broken Spoke in Austin, TX, which just received it’s official Texas Historical Marker designation, and is well one the way to being preserved forevermore amid the encroaching growth of Austin. pic.twitter.com/i0mcXR4FWq— Saving Country Music (@KyleCoroneos) April 12, 2023
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.
All photos by Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos