Musicians Off the Record: James White

The Broken Spoke, in all its sawdust and suds splendor,is the archetypal Texas honky-tonk and arguably the birthplace of Austin music’s laid-back lifestyle. As an Austin tradition since 1964, owners James and Annetta White have welcomed country music legends, next-big-things and neophytes to their stage while making music the point.  A genuine original, James White literally built the hallowed dance hall up from the ground and has kept it perennially popular with generations of music fans. 

If Willie Nelson has a favorite haunt in Texas, the Broken Spoke would likely be it. As a clean-cut, Nashville-based tunesmith, Nelson followed the trail to the Spoke made by Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells,Hank Thompson, Tex Ritter, Ray Price, Grandpa Jones and Roy Acuff.  White, since childhood a lover of classic country—the true, two-steppin’, Western swing stuff that is every Texan’s birthright—has made his club a time-capsule. “This is what a dance hall is supposed to look like.  Right out here on this dance floor they dance counter-clockwise because that’s the Texas way to do it . . . and we don’t allow no line dancin’ out here, and we like to hold our women and the women like to hold their man and that’s the way its supposed to be.”

With down-home country cooking, a museum of White’s collection of country music memorabilia (aptly known as the “Tourist Trap Room”) and music made for its own reward, the Spoke enjoys a mystique found nowhere else. White has long maintained a philosophy of booking unapologetically traditional music acts, including George Strait and his Ace in the Hole Band, who started out at the Spoke, because “when people walk in that door, they know damn well they ain’t at Carnegie Hall.”

The Spoke, which has been featured in print around the world, remains dedicated to showcasing the purest forms of Texas music in a welcoming environ. While the club has served as a stepping stone for local acts who’ve become cult heroes, including the Geezinslaw Brothers, Jerry Jeff Walker and Alvin Crow, White also tries to accommodate numerous charity requests yearly, though his most public act of kindness was providing Willie Nelson assistance during his period of tax troubles.  White, using a countertop pickle jar labeled “Where there’s a Willie, there’s a way,” (the title of a tune White serenaded Nelson with, later) raised $10,000 and forwarded the money to Nelson to encourage his return home from Hawaii. White continues to measure himself by his good deeds and the hospitality with which he treats strangers, but the Army veteran never forgets the days he spent as a young buck in a pick-up truck, writing songs and never dreaming he would one day own the last of the true Texas dance halls.