The Broken Spoke isn’t just a venue. It’s a symbol of Texan defiance. You won’t take the Alamo without a fight and The Broken Spoke will never change. Even as South Lamar explodes skyward with apartment complexes and hotels, one of the most famous dancehalls in Texas remains intact. A genuine relic of Lone Star uniqueness.
In the course of a four-hour visit, I not only got a chance to breathe in everything this storied establishment has to offer, but I learned why it has endured over 50 years. Underneath the weathered bar neon and aging exterior lies a musical history and sense of family that are unlike anything else Austin has to offer.
7:00 p.m. – James
A sprinkling of customers dotted the Spoke’s main entrance dining hall the Friday I visited. Locals in ten-gallon hats and obvious out-of-towners threw down chicken fried steak while Ben Rodgers played cowboy tunes on the small front stage.
In the midst of the dinner crowd, a silver haired lady poured drinks and seated customers. When she introduced herself as Annetta White, wife of owner James White, it hit me like a mule kick. This is a family affair.
She told me stories of late nights, long hours and the pride she felt in her and her husband’s business. Even in her mid-seventies, she still pulls 12-hour shifts when needed.
As I polished off my Lone Star and considered another, James White entered the room. Decked out in a rhinestone-studded cowboy shirt, he was the picture of Texas bling. After some business related to the new Broken Spoke documentary, he sung a song with Rogers and proceeded to greet every occupied table.
Afterwards, White took me on a tour of the museum section and talked Broken Spoke history. He spoke about the bar’s humble beginnings like a proud papa. Even the name has a back story.
“I thought that name up when I was in the Army. I was thinking about it being something original, something Texan. I had wagon wheels rattling around my brain, thought about this old movie ‘Broken Arrow’ and then it came to me. I’ll get a couple wagon wheels, knock a spoke out, and put ‘em on each side of the door. And that’s how I got my start.”
Like the Jimmy Stewart film that inspired it, the joint is 100% classic. In the museum, artifacts and pictures of a hundred legends fill the room. Senators, congressmen and past presidents. George Strait posters from when he was a nobody. Pictures of Willie Nelson, an artist White hasn’t had to pay in nearly 30 years. He just pops in when in town and plays some tunes.
The beauty of White is in his easy-going defiance. When I asked how he feels about Austin’s expansion, I expected a tirade. All I got was a shrug. Other than taxes, traffic and the occasional tangle with the city to keep his dirt parking lot, it doesn’t bother him much.
To him, keeping the Spoke going isn’t a struggle. It’s a way of life. Austin could turn into a space station and he wouldn’t care. He’d sweep the space dust from his sidewalk and open for lunch.
8:30 p.m. – Joel and Catrin
After my hour with White, I walked to the main ballroom to watch the evening dance lesson. Run by his daughter, Terri White, the sessions are designed to turn wallflowers into two-steppers in the space of an hour. And it’s not just a side show. Dancing has been at the core of The Broken Spoke since its inception in 1964.
“The minute we opened, it was intended to be honky tonk with food and dancing,” said James White. “When we first opened up, we would get so damn busy, they’d be dancing out the door and around the parking lot.”
Teaching a class of nearly fifty people, Terri White was a 100-pound firecracker. With a sharp wit and a knack for pulling people away from their comfort zones, she turned the crowd of newbies into capable dancers. These sessions run Wednesday through Sunday and are designed to keep the dance floor open and friendly.
While watching the crowd shuffle to Terri White’s hilarious instruction, a couple sitting at a “Reserved” table asked if I wanted to sit down. They introduced themselves as Joel and Catrin Gammage. Joel, a fourth generation Austinite, has been dancing at the Spoke since his teens. Every day for a stretch of five years, if you swung by the joint, he would be there hoofing.
But not lately. Tonight was first time the two had been out in almost eight months, due to Catrin’s battle with leukemia. Now that her disease is in remission, it was time to hit the Spoke. As Joel spoke about his love for the dancehall, fellow regulars came up, shook his hand and asked how Catrin was doing. The entire section on a first name basis.
As the two-step students finished with Cotton Eyed Joe, The Broken Spoke ceased to be a venue on South Lamar and became a family reunion. A wave of palpable warmth wafted through the dancehall. Visiting is like attending a family picnic. If you don’t meet somebody while you’re there, you’re doing something wrong.
9:30 p.m. – Dale, James and the Whole Damn Family
When the class finished up, the party kicked into gear. Austin legend Dale Watson and his honky tonk four-piece struck up a two-step standard, drawing a crowd to the floor. Newbies fresh from the lesson looked at home amongst the more experienced steppers.
Wife in hand, Joel Gammage took to the floor and quickly shook off any rust that had formed during their eight-month absence. They floated on the dance floor like petals in the breeze, dipping and swaying among their fellow dancers. A pair of smiles drifting through the evening.
The room ebbed and flowed with the music. The second it seemed a little too empty, Dale Watson’s country croon and twangy guitar brought people back like iron shards to an electro-magnet.
And all of it was coated in Texas class and civil gentility. Women were being asked to the dance floor by friendly gentlemen in boots, belts and cowboy hats. Smiles and politeness everywhere. No bumping and grinding. A safe environment for everyone to enjoy.
Every fabric of the Austin experience was in attendance. From local regulars to a group of British blokes on vacation to a bachelorette party, The Broken Spoke was a cauldron of different accents and ethnicities.
To Gammage, this is what makes the Spoke special. “For somebody who hasn’t spent much time outside of Texas, I feel like I’ve been all over the world.”
10:30 p.m. – Rolling the Wheel, Rolling Home
At 10:30 p.m., James White got on stage with Dale Watson and told the story of The Broken Spoke. One of the last of the Texas dancehalls. A place where you can get cold beer and good food. No hanging ferns, no Grey Poupon. Here, you get the real mustard.
As White and Watson went through the bit, Catrin Gammage was invited to roll the wagon wheel, a nightly Broken Spoke tradition. The crowd cheered as she maneuvered the wheel around the dance floor. All completely absorbed by the Texas time machine they found themselves in.
When I walked outside, South Lamar was strangely quiet. Just the occasional rush of a south-bound car and a gentle breeze. I closed my eyes and let my mind wander, trying to imagine what this place was like 50 years ago. Feeling Dale Watson’s four-on-floor beat. Smelling the chicken fried steak. Sensing the energy and vibe of a down-home country joint with a honky tonk heartbeat, plopped into the middle of glorious nothing.
When I opened my eyes, I was back in the present, but my mind still lingered on The Broken Spoke and its ageless charm. Thanks to the White family and the dozens of regulars who make it their home away from home, this dancehall will endure long after Austin explodes into the stratosphere of modern city living.
As James White is fond of saying, “We ain’t going nowhere and we’re never going to change.” Wouldn’t want it any other way.
3201 S. Lamar Blvd. – Website
@BillTuckerTSP wants to know:
What’s your favorite memory from The Broken Spoke?
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