With Whomever Will Have Me
An Okie makes peace with his rural roots on the dance floor of Austin’s Broken Spoke
by Kameron Dunn
After my COVID vaccine reached full efficacy last March, I stepped through the door of the Broken Spoke in South Austin and ordered a Lone Star at the three-seater bar. Relatively new to town, I had been scouring the internet for country bars and landed on the Spoke, lured by its reputation as one of the last real honky-tonks. I settled into a tall chair facing the dining room and took in the myriad forms of Texana on display: a neon George Strait sign, a studded saddle worth tens of thousands of dollars mounted in a glass case, and a mustachioed mannequin stationed for photo ops. The space feels alive and ghostly at the same time, like having a party in your grandparents’ house that’s been frozen in time since your mom left at 18.
That night, there were about a dozen of us there listening to local act Lance Lipinsky, an ageless man with a pompadour, bang out some classics on his keyboard. A middle-aged woman with a flowering smile told me she came here just to see him. She sat at a round table near his little setup between the door and the pool table and elicited small shrieks every time he made a comment to the audience, some directed to her.
Charmed, I returned every night that week into the weekend, eventually stepping foot in what felt like a holy space: the dance hall in the back. Down the narrow corridor between a display of celebrity photos with the late founder, James White, and members of the bar staff, I stepped through a door into the massive space on the other side. Illuminated by neon lights advertising Budweiser and Lone Star, the dance hall extends to a stage with old amps, flanked on either end with dozens of tables outfitted with the kind of weathered chairs I associate with church functions.
I now consider myself a regular and grab a table every other weekend to listen to classic country music played by skilled artists like Alvin Crow and Dale Watson, who have been performing their songs longer than I’ve been alive, songs I watched them play for months before I finally got the bravery to dance. The people who go to the Broken Spoke are either regulars who’ve been going there for decades—real country folk—or people encountering the culture for the first time in all its funky candor. When I go, I sip beer and two-step with whomever will have me.
The Broken Spoke is a quintessential piece of Texas history. Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson played here back in the 1970s, and George Strait famously cut his teeth beneath the low-hanging ceiling of the dance hall’s stage before he hit it big in the 1980s. Starting in the 1960s, White, the Spoke’s owner, cultivated a curious celebration of Texas at the honky-tonk. That hippie-cowboy blend has mostly disappeared in the city, but it nevertheless persists in this slice of old Austin.
I’ve become evangelical about the Broken Spoke and tell everyone new to Austin or visiting me for a weekend that it’s the place to be on a Saturday night. Most of my Austin friends, especially the coastal-expat elites, huff and puff about it. They don’t like country music, or they find the prospect of a bunch of old cowboys two-stepping to be hostile.
Outsiders often perceive the country world as hostile—in the realm of Bocephus and tiny white churches, in the bodies of cowboys who angrily return to their families after getting bucked off their horses early in the local rodeos, in the patterns of camouflage and sensations of felt Stetsons, sometimes even in the Southern drawl of the voices. My new friends in Austin are queer like me, and they’re scared by the corner of America the Broken Spoke celebrates, at least what they know about the culture from TV, hearsay, and negative experiences.
I was born in the rural South—a part of the country where people say “howdy” in earnest, work on ranches, and wear cowboy hats to formal events—in a small town 10 minutes north of the Red River in Oklahoma. Homophobia is a reality I faced firsthand growing up, which has led to my complicated relationship with my hometown, its people, and its broader culture. When I moved to Austin, I wanted to strip myself of all that and do away with both the perception and the reality of my upbringing. But every other weekend I find myself helplessly, lovingly returning to its simulacrum—the Broken Spoke.
I relocated to Austin in 2019 for a PhD in American Studies at the University of Texas. The program is fully funded, meaning I pay no tuition and have a stipend for my living expenses. This allowed me—a low-income, disabled person—an opportunity I otherwise wouldn’t have had to move to the big city. I’ve hit up many of the well-known spots by now: Hippie Hollow, the Drag, the Arboretum, Congress Avenue Bridge for the murmur of bats.
As an Okie, I’ve traveled between Texas and my small hometown in Bryan County for as long as I’ve been alive. I’ve been to all the major cities. The leather jacket I’m wearing as I write this I bought at an antiques shop in downtown Sherman. I’ve been way out west to the Permian Basin and felt the raw power of lines of wind turbines spinning in the darkness. I’ve sweltered through 5Ks in the heat of North Dallas. Walked through Beaumont’s vacant downtown. Busked at Galveston Beach. And smelled the paper mills of Texarkana. Yet, nothing has struck me the way the Broken Spoke has, and few things have left me so conflicted.
The conflict is a familiar one. I grew up a queer person in an unaccepting community with an unaccepting family. Something had to give once my psychiatric disability—bipolar disorder, untreated at the time—began causing risk-taking behavior in my teens. That’s when I told my family, to their disgust and vitriol, I was gay. After days of my father shouting Bible verses at me and a string of mental-illness-related self-harm, I was committed to a psych ward in Denton my senior year of high school.
Part of my excitement for moving to Austin was this idea that I could finally fit in and find queer camaraderie. I never had a partner in Oklahoma, and any of my intimate ventures were confined to Oak Lawn and various queer enclaves north of Dallas, a reasonable 1.5-hour drive south from home. I have always dressed distinctly straight, and I’ve never had an inflection in my voice that would give me away. When I moved to Austin, I wanted to forge my own community to make up for the friendship, family, and romance I’d been missing out on. The reality has been different and more complicated than I expected. Instead of abandoning my country roots, I’ve been seeking them out.
These roots still exist in the city despite rapid urbanization, outstretched beneath the edifices of new Austin and the influx of capital flowing into the downtown core. The oak tree outside the Broken Spoke has been there since long before White opened his place back in the ’60s, when that part of South Austin was merely pastureland. The hip South Lamar apartments standing tall over the red, haphazardly constructed honky-tonk make it seem as out of place as a donkey at a horse race. It’s hard not to feel the sentiment of how Austin is losing what makes it Austin. That’s what I think about one hazy night while smoking and gazing at the old oak that looks more like a rendering than an actual living organism.
Since I was young, I’ve molded myself into an acceptable kind of masculinity. I wrestled with my guy friends, dressed in muted colors, and learned to speak with a deep tone whether addressing my peers and superiors or in prayer. In my adulthood, masculinity is a script I’ve memorized. It’s the way of expressing myself that feels the most comfortable, and it adds a layer of security to my day-to-day social life. It’s earned me a privilege I didn’t realize I had until I started dating my ex-boyfriend, who is considerably more effeminate than me.
I met him, my first and only partner since leaving Oklahoma, through a mutual friend. We hit it off dangerously fast. It was the kind of infatuation I fantasized about in high school, the kind where we said “I love you” after knowing each other only two weeks. We bouldered at the same gym. We traveled to New York during Pride weekend. We spent almost every hour of every day together from when we first met until the day we broke up. The whole time, I wanted to love all over him, even in public. Through the course of our relationship, I learned more about my own privilege as a straight-passing gay man. I saw his guardedness when we talked to each other or showed any kind of affection out in the open. That is simply not on my mind most of the time, although I’ve had some close calls.
Two years ago, a fellow queer schoolmate and I made a trip to a bar in East Austin. I decided to put a spin on the Western look by wearing a pink cowboy hat an Okie friend gave me for Christmas. At the end of a long, crowded line, the bouncer, a tall guy with his own cowboy hat, accosted me. “What the hell are you doing with that pink cowboy hat?” he demanded. “You’re appropriating my culture.” Clearly upset with what he interpreted as posturing, I turned his attention to the state on my ID. “I’m from Oklahoma,” I said. “It’s my culture as much as it is yours.” I didn’t let it faze me that night, but the subtext was clear.
Any fear I thought would be assuaged by moving to Austin lingers in many of my out-and-proud encounters. I’ve opted back to masculine dress most of the time, sticking with Wranglers, Carhartt shirts, and trucker hats. At the Spoke, I’ll wear a pearl-snap shirt and my ostrich-leather boots and a non-pink Stetson. My voice is low, and my mannerisms are masculine. My legs are never crossed, and my hands, if they move in conversation, swing wide and forcefully. I don’t tell anyone at the bars I study queer communities for my doctorate program. When my female roommate joins me on a night out, we pretend to be a hetero couple. Just for kicks, of course. It’s nice to move through the world without fear that a man will shout at me for some masculine infraction, for being a threat to his or my or all men’s manhood.
The one discreet giveaway I allow myself every now and then is painting the nails on my left hand in black polish. Sometimes it’s not as discreet as I’d like. At a dive spot in a strip mall in Pflugerville, a broad-shouldered man with a thick black beard asked me if I sold drugs. I asked him why he thought I had drugs to sell him, and he told me it was because of my nails.
Despite my enthusiasm for the Spoke, I’ve had rough encounters there, too. One bartender, an older woman who I haven’t seen working there in months, noticed my nails and was suspicious. To deflect, I replied, “My girlfriend likes me to paint them.” She countered, “Oh, does she make you wear lingerie, too?”
I now dress full cowboy for the Spoke to blend in and because it feels good. My friend calls my cowboy wear “drag.” She says it as a joke, but there’s truth to it. Drag refers to the practice of creating characters invented by, usually, gay men, some you may have seen on RuPaul’s Drag Race. These men dress as drag “queens” in a ludicrous parody of femininity. Through gender-bending performances, they challenge widespread ideas of masculinity by showing the slippery nature of how presentation through manner and dress affects perception. For those unaware of the performance, they may not even identify these men as men. Don’t get me wrong: My cowboy wear indicates a piece of me that’s sincere. At the Broken Spoke, I’m not engaging in parody. I’m doing this for real and playing my part in the overall honky-tonk vibe. It is play, though, in a certain sense. It’s a performance of a piece of my past I want to embody in my present.
This jibes well with the Spoke’s atmosphere. One night, I approached a table with two young ladies who had just bought their first drinks. I asked one if she wanted to dance and she politely declined. Her friend’s interest was piqued, however, and she said she wanted to dance with me but didn’t know how. I led her out onto the dance floor bathed in lights, her long hair flowing in the wind of all the fans. I showed her the steps, and she really struggled with it, but I told her it was OK. I asked if she wanted to spin, and she nodded, so I twirled her. Then twirled her again. And again. I watched other men engage in the same steps as me, in the same clothes, and in the same space.
Another night, I chatted with a middle-aged man from rural Arizona. I asked him how he liked the place, and he told me in his parts the Broken Spoke was regular fare. I told him I felt the same way, and that’s why I liked coming here. He asked where I was from. “Durant,” I said, “Oklahoma.” He replied, “Ah, y’all grow a lot of peanuts out there.” Exactly right, at least back in the day. Now, the lawn in front of City Hall features a statue representative of the “World’s Largest Peanut”—which was never grown there, by the way. But the recognition felt good, a shared connection to the place and how it related to our backgrounds.
These days, I’m all about the Broken Spoke: the music, the dress, the dancing. It’s where I can fit in. The honky-tonk offers two-stepping lessons to those new to the art. I like to get there early on the weekends to hear the teacher—the late founder’s daughter, Terri White—instruct the beginners. She gives little speeches about the glory of the Broken Spoke, Texas culture, and her father, of whom she always speaks so highly.
One evening, to a crowd of a few dozen couples learning in the dance hall, she stated plainly that the men in attendance would never measure up to her dad. She explained that he was so many things: a great father, fiercely passionate about the things he loved, and strongly accepting of people from all walks of life, races, and sexual orientations. He was a real man by her construction, not merely tolerant but voracious in his appetite for new people no matter their differences.
Armed with this knowledge, I feel buoyed in my continuing love affair with the Spoke. It’s country in the way I want country to be—authentic in its roots and progressive in its ideals. By going there, queer people may be able to reconnect with a piece of their small-town upbringing. The conflict of being a queer person in a non-queer world will never be fully resolved for me, but at the Broken Spoke I enjoy strumming that tension like a guitar.
My rural origins are a feature of myself I can never let go of, even if I tried. When I drive up Interstate 35 and cross over to US 75 in Dallas, then through the fields of Melissa, Van Alstyne, and Howe, eventually crossing the Red River bridge back to Oklahoma, I bring that part of myself back. When I drive through Austin and move among its people, I likewise bring my Oklahoma self to those spaces, too. Negotiating my queerness and my country roots is no longer the chore it was when I was younger. Now, I endeavor through this ongoing conflict with optimism. It’s a whiskey-bent evening at the honky-tonk, a conversation with disillusioned country folk in the throes of urban life, a longing gaze into the eyes of a lover. It’s a song I two-step to, a cheap beer I drink to get buzzed, the butt of a cigarette I toss into the sand-filled bucket by the door before going back inside for one more dance.