Austin’s Broken Spoke has operated continuously for more than half a century, earning its Texas-sized reputation as a historical and star-studded live country music venue and serving up some of the best chicken-fried steak anywhere.
Original founders James and Annetta White opened the Broken Spoke on November 10, 1964, which was just a mile outside the city limits. Since then, the city’s boundaries have expanded 10 miles beyond it and the Whites’ daughters and granddaughters have joined the family business.
Ginny White-Peacock serves as business manager at the Broken Spoke and Terri White teaches dance lessons Wednesday through Saturday beginning at 8 p.m. Both of Terri’s daughters, Mollee Jo Montague and Ashley Dutton, have helped out often over the years by waiting tables in the dining room while Ginny’s husband, Mike Peacock, tends bar.
From all over the world, folks visit the Broken Spoke to seemingly step back in time to an era reminiscent of the 1960s when legendary country stars Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Kitty Wells, and others performed there.
“People say they want to see our Texas dance hall because that’s what they’ve always heard about,” Ginny says. “We’re not trying to look like an old honky-tonk; we are an old honky-tonk. We didn’t go buy some antiques and put ’em in here; that stuff has been here since 1964.”
Generations of fans share a love for the Broken Spoke, she says.
“People say they married their girlfriend that they met at the Broken Spoke,” Ginny says. “Then 30 years later, they come out and tell their kids, ‘Hey, me and your dad met out here,’ and they can show ’em the exact same table that they sat at, or they can dance on the same dance floor—it’s the same. Then their kids get to grow up and bring their kids out.”
Not much of the décor has changed at the Broken Spoke over the past five decades. It still has an old Americana feel and houses more than fifty years of country music history and memorabilia. Hundreds of framed pictures of the Broken Spoke’s star entertainers line the walls, including ones of Willie Nelson, George Strait, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, and Marcia Ball.
In the dining room, Western café-style curtains depicting cowboys and cowgirls participating in campfire sing-alongs hang over the windows. Patrons sit in peg-leg chairs at handmade round tables complete with built-in Lazy Susans holding condiments or in booths upholstered in imitation calfskin vinyl. Glass cases line the walls and house vintage embroidered and embellished Western suits, star-autographed acoustic guitars, and an authentic handcrafted tooled black leather and silver saddle.
At 78, James still greets guests at the dance hall door nearly every Friday and Saturday night, dressed in his best Wranglers and a Swarovski crystal-studded vintage Western shirt. He also wears a Gene Autry-era neckerchief, Lucchese ostrich-skin boots, and a Stetson Silverbelly cowboy hat. By 10:30 p.m. he delivers his “Broken Spoke Speech” from the stage before performing with the night’s live country band. He usually picks a girl to roll the authentic Broken Spoke wagon wheel up to the stage as the band plays.
“We ain’t changin’ nothing,” James says. “We ain’t fancy, but we dang sure are country.”
The Broken Spoke also helped Austin to become the birthplace of the nation’s progressive country music movement during the 1970s, James says. He hired Marcia Ball’s band, Freda and the Firedogs, in the summer of 1973 to perform at a private campaign party for U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett in his first run for the Texas Senate. For the first time ever, cowboys and hippies began dancing together at the Broken Spoke.
“That party was made up of hippies, either barefoot or wearing moccasins. Few of them knew how to two-step, so they improvised by dancing what we liked to call ‘the hippie hop,’” James says. “The hippies had long hair, but they liked country music and they liked to drink beer.”
James’ wife, Annetta, at 75, still often works behind the bar or fills orders in the kitchen dressed in a brightly colored rhinestone gimme cap, four sets of earrings, and a colorful Western ensemble to boot. Annetta serves as the unofficial bouncer and dress code enforcer at the Broken Spoke, a family place.
“I never drank, gambled or cussed until I met James White because my daddy was a hard-shell Baptist preacher,” Annetta says. “When I married James, he told me early on ‘if someone offers you a beer you should accept it,’ so now I drink beer and I’ve been on a diet ever since.”
A local country band entertains for tips in a corner of the dining room Tuesday through Saturday evenings beginning at 6 p.m. Another band performs in the dance hall beginning about 9 p.m. Cover charges range from $12 to $20, depending upon the entertainer for the evening.
The dance hall stage stretches 64 feet across. Powder-blue-painted paneling depicts a country scene of giant yellow Texas stars, a crescent moon, and a guitar player who bears a likeness to Bob Wills.
In the dining room, cowgirls often take selfies with the Broken Spoke’s mascot, Rowdy, a cowboy mannequin wearing a black handlebar mustache and long hair, dressed in leather chaps and jeans, a vest, Western shirt, boots, and black felt cowboy hat.
The Broken Spoke still offers good music, good food, and plenty of dancing. Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel, Dale Watson, Gary P. Nunn, Bruce Robison, Billy Mata, Alvin Crow, and others perform regularly.
Its iconic standing remained unflappable even after 2016, when developers built The 704, a complex of two four-story, multiuse residential and commercial buildings on either side of the Broken Spoke. The red, rustic, old barn-style building on South Lamar—now flanked by sleek high-rise apartments—remains a tribute to an Austin that has nearly vanished. Meanwhile, the White family still honors a promise made to the late great country star Ernest Tubb years ago: They’re keepin’ it country.