The Broken Spoke

In “The Broken Spoke: Austin’s Legendary Honky-Tonk,” author Donna Marie Miller leads us around the dance floor (always, always counterclockwise) of one of the only remaining authentic honky-tonks left standing in Texas. Other than a few inside counters, a coat or two of paint and an added dance floor, things around the Spoke simply haven’t changed that much, and that’s just the way owners James and Annetta White have always wanted it. Once inside the door, the music, smells, atmosphere—sometimes even faces—are pretty much the same now as they were when the doors opened in 1964.

Miller lays out a rich history of loyal community, tradition and some unexpected surprises at the Spoke. We hear tales about Skeeter, the one-time bar resident spider monkey; regular customer “Crazy Too Cool Carl” Anderson, who’s famous for rolling the Spoke’s iconic and heavy wooden wagon wheel into the building and all around the dance floor whenever Alvin Crow performed; and about that time Pauline Reese rode her horse through the back door. All of this low-ceiling, boot-scootin’ charm and grit is framed by performances from some of the biggest names in country-western music over the years; lots and lots (and lots) of beer; and what many say is the best chicken-fried steak ever to grace a thick oval plate. Here’s a little more from the book to whet your whistle:

The day James received his honorable discharge from the army, at twenty-five years old, he began building the one-room honky-tonk and called it the Broken Spoke. It opened November 10, 1964, about a mile outside what was then the Austin city limits. For the grand opening, guitarists Dave Perry and Johnny Rex performed. James paid the musician-singers in free beer and barbecue. He also gave away three hundred plates of brisket and plenty of cold beer that day to customers.

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Joe’s [James’ stepfather] friends spread the word that the Broken Spoke had opened for business. In the days that followed Joe remained an ever-present and imposing force at the Broken Spoke, so much so that some patrons came to believe that he owned it. However, Annetta says that the Broken Spoke managed to stay open and operated on a shoestring budget only thanks to James’s hard work and good credit. “We didn’t have a dime to spare. When we sold one case of beer, we went and bought another case. We had ten dollars in a cigar box when we opened. We didn’t have a cash register, and the one we got first didn’t have a tape. We used two cigar boxes—one for incoming and the other one for outgoing,” she says.

“We hadn’t been in business long when we got a state audit; that’s when our CPA told us to get a register with a tape.” Because the Broken Spoke would not obtain a mixed-beverage liquor license until 1980, James sold “setups,” such as 7 Up and Coca-Cola, and both bottled and canned beer. Patrons also brought in bottles of liquor wrapped in brown paper sacks, a practice they referred to as “brown baggin.’” “Guys got drunker then, because they looked at their bottle and figured that they’d only had a couple of inches left and they might as well drink what was left rather than cart the bottle home,” he says. James recalls that he sold beer for twenty-five cents a bottle or premium beer like Schlitz, Budweiser, or Miller High Life for thirty cents. He sold setups with a glass of ice for thirty cents each. “Basically we had to sell four beers to make a dollar, and we didn’t clear that much because of the price of our beer; our overhead cut into everything,” James says. “I used to bartend sixteen to seventeen hours a day out here. I learned to pop two beers in each hand, and I could pop beer as fast as I could sell it.” On busier nights, thousands of beer-bottle caps littered the floor.

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Soon news about the place spread; before long the Broken Spoke filled to capacity nearly every night. Doris Gerald “D. G.” Burrow and the Western Melodies often played a Sunday gig at the Broken Spoke. James paid the band thirty-two dollars a night, which amounted to quite a bit of money back then. James asked customers to donate to a band fund by passing around a tip jar that he called “passin’ the kitty.” James seldom collected more than twenty dollars, but the tips offset his costs to hire a band. His first mistake was allowing band members and waitresses to drink all the beer they wanted. “Come to find out, the waitresses were getting too drunk, so I had to start charging them. I had one girl who just made a hog outta herself like an old sot; she just drank all the free beer, and toward the end of the night she wasn’t worth a flip,” he says. “So I just had to start charging the help. Even today, we charge what we call ‘an employee price,’ which is a little bit less than what the customers pay. They still do a lot of drinking on the side or buy their friends drinks. It’s still hard to try to control that.”

James soon began hiring bands to play Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. He paid Travis and the Western Gentlemen twenty-five dollars to play every Friday; on Saturdays Bill Dorsey and the Melody Drifters played for thirty-five dollars. “We would pack them in. It was just solid wall-to-wall people. I would pop beer as fast as I could—four for a dollar, and we’d sell setups. It was just really a big crowd. It was so busy that folks would dance into the dining room and out the front door, right out into the parking lot and then turn around and come back inside dancing,” he says. “Back in those days a lot of people would dress up more than what they do today, as far as wearing a coat and tie. They would want to look their best—shine their shoes and put on their dancing shoes.”

Even back then stepping into the Broken Spoke often felt like a flash out of the past—it looked like the dance halls of the 1940s and 1950s that James remembered visiting as a boy. James built a place that people would always remember for its appearance, its live music, and its good food.

Excerpt used with permission by Texas A&M University Press. Copyright Donna Marie Miller.