On what would have been James M. White’s 83rd birthday, friends of the White family, local musicians, politicians, and press, along with longtime patrons, gathered in the dirt parking lot under the storied oak tree outside the Broken Spoke in Austin. The occasion bringing everyone together was the dance hall’s Texas Historical Marker dedication ceremony.
Musician Alvin Crow, who has performed at the venue for 51 years, accompanied by Ian Stewart, played the Bob Wills’ classic “Faded Love” and other tunes in a short set before the ceremony began.
When the Broken Spoke opened in 1964, it was a mile south of Austin’s city limits on Old Fredericksburg Highway (now South Lamar Boulevard). White, a native Austinite, began building the dance hall himself the day he received an honorable discharge from the Army. The list of music legends who have played at the club includes Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, George Strait, Kitty Wells, the Sir Douglas Quintet, and Roy Orbison. Mick Jagger even made a stop at the venue before the Rolling Stones played a show at the Circuit of The Americas.
These days, as you drive down South Lamar away from downtown, the honky-tonk is a blip among a series of condos and new mixed-use, high-density developments. The 704, with buildings on both sides of the Spoke, concerned Austinites in 2013 when it was being developed, but Transwestern, the real estate developer who owned the land at that time, worked with the White family to ensure the honky-tonk wouldn’t become another lost Austin cultural institution.
Still, almost 60 years after White opened the Broken Spoke, the city of Austin doesn’t seem to have a southern edge anymore; it blends into the town of Manchaca, then Buda, Kyle, San Marcos, and eventually San Antonio. In fast-developing cities like Austin, historical designation protects cultural institutions like the Broken Spoke from demolition and provides property tax exemptions as well. It’s surprising it took this long for the Spoke.
For Donna Marie Miller, who wrote a book about the dance hall, The Broken Spoke: Austin’s Legendary Honky-Tonk, the dedication fulfilled a dream for her and the friends and family of White, she says. “Since the day in 2013 that I began writing my book, the White family became my extended family. After Texas A&M University Press published my book, I felt determined to obtain a Texas Historical Marker for the Broken Spoke.”
Miller spearheaded the effort for a Texas Historical Marker starting in 2014, the year the venue turned 50. The application was dismissed due to White still being alive. (“The commission required that the name of any person listed on a marker must have been deceased for 10 years,” Miller explains.) The effort grew more “earnest” in 2021, after White died. Advised to seek a marker for just the building, not the land around it as well, Miller received approval from the Travis County Historical Commission. It then headed to the Texas Historical Commission, which approved it “without a hitch” in 2022. A waiver to include White’s name was also accepted.
The commission sent the marker to Miller, who kept it wrapped up under a bed in a guest room. A family member of the Whites then did the actual installation on the building.
These days, the Spoke attracts tourists as well as two-steppers, but it’s more than just a destination for the curious. “The Broken Spoke occupies a place in our collective consciousness where ‘historic’ gave way to ‘mythic’ in real time,” says Hector Saldaña, music curator at The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. “From the beginning, its honky tonk heroes were real. The country music was genuine. Beer was cold and the dancing and memories were fun. If one was looking for Austin’s soul, it could be found here. As a honky-tonk rite of passage it is without peer. Just ask Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. Even he couldn’t resist it in November 2021.”
What Jagger couldn’t resist was likely the unfancy bona fide appeal of this Texas music institution. Can a place be a muse? The Broken Spoke’s legacy proves that can be the case. Aside from inspiring Miller’s book and also the 2016 documentary Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke directed by Brenda Greene Mitchell and Sam Wainwright Douglas, the Broken Spoke has influenced pop culture, including the songs “The Broken Spoke Legend,” which Crow co-wrote with James White and recorded in 1988 and the Derailers’ “Cold Beer, Hot Women, and Cool Country Music.” Robert Ellis (aka “Texas Piano Man”) recorded the music video for his 2019 song “Topo Chico” at the Broken Spoke as well.
The dance hall has been a movie set, too, most notably for Texas Wind (1991) starring Dolly Parton and Gary Busey with a cameo by White himself. NBC’s Friday Night Lights used the Broken Spoke as a filming location, and both the venue and the White family were featured in a Queer Eye episode that aired in 2021.
The April 12 historical designation ceremony celebrated the Broken Spoke’s place in Texas music history and pop culture. Speakers included Miller, as well as Texas first lady Cecilia Abbott, Austin District 5 Councilman Ryan Alter, musician Monte Warden, James and Annetta White’s daughter Ginny White-Peacock, and Travis County Historical Commission Vice Chair Bob Ward.
However, there’s more work to do. The state historical designation was only part of a long process to protect the land upon which the dance hall sits. On April 25, the Austin City Planning Commission will vote on whether to grant the land historical zoning status, which offers protection against demolition and also property tax abatement after rehabilitation. The White family, along with Miller, hope to apply to list the Broken Spoke on the National Register of Historic Places next.
In the meantime, Dale Watson, a fixture on the Broken Spoke stage for years says, “The Broken Spoke may not be the ‘Last of the True Texas Dance halls’ as James White claimed, but it is certainly the last of the true Texas dance halls in Austin, Texas, and therefore, certainly worthy of its designation.”