The Broken Spoke: Austin's Legendary Honky-Tonk
by Donna Marie Miller

Texas A&M University Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1-623-49519-0.
Reviewed by Trilla Pando
Posted on 07/23/2017

Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: History/Current Events

"How was the Broken Spoke?" The obvious question to a Texan who reports she's just back from Austin.

"Great! Can't wait to go back." And then forestalling the next question—"Sure, had chicken-fried steak—the big one." It's a Texas tradition and as a life-long Texan one that I've participated in many times since the first days of the Spoke over fifty years ago. So you don't have to ask how I enjoyed reading this book about those many years—I did, for many reasons besides the memories of my own it evoked.

In November 1964, Annetta and James White threw open the door to the Broken Spoke, their own long dreamed-of honky tonk. James was only twenty-five and fresh out of the army. The couple ran the place on a shoestring—not even a cash register, just two cigar boxes. Annetta, who had a day job, was the waitress. James tended bar and cooked. Always, there was live music. Word spread and soon the dancing crowds spilled out of the bar into the dining room, out the door and into the parking lot never missing a beat.

At first, less well-known groups played for little cash but plenty of free beer. The roster of performers, like the building, grew. The Whites gave many young folks a start. One clean-cut, earnest young man turned into a legend—the 1967 picture of this wholesome youngster on page 53 is worth the price of the book. That can't be Willie Nelson! But it is. He had just recorded "Mr. Record Man," and the Whites gave him a chance.

Willie Nelson's isn't the only name that will send readers running to YouTube. Kitty Wells, Kinky Friedman, Jerry Jeff Walker, George Strait, the Texas Playboys, Gary P. Nunn. Glance at the table of contents before you start reading.

Once there you'll also find famous names from the other side of the footlights. Especially the political world, from First Lady Ladybird Johnson through several governors: George W. Bush, Ann Richards, and current Governor Greg Abbot. If someone wants to run for a state-wide office, she'd better have a party at the Broken Spoke.

The White family grew right alongside the Broken Spoke. Might be better to say inside the Broken Spoke. Daughter Terri recalls going to bed in the office on school nights. A few years later Ernest Tubb smiled into the camera as he held eleven-day-old Ginny. Granddaughter Mollee Jo had to wait until she was nine for her picture with actor Robert Duvall. Mollee Jo still works occasionally as bartender—whenever her grandmother needs her.

For all the ups-and-downs in the world and in Austin since 1964, the Broken Spoke continues as the honky tonk it has always been. There's no mirror ball hanging over the dance floor, no mechanical bull challenging all comers. "I ain't changing..." is one of James White's favorite lines from the stage—and if the Broken Spoke is open, then count on James being on the stage sometime during the evening; Annetta will be around as well. That's two of the reasons folks keep coming back.

I've got a trip to Austin coming up in a couple of months. I can almost taste the chicken-fried now. I checked the schedule—think we'll go on Two-Stepping Tuesday.

It's easy for Donna Marie Miller to visit the Broken Spoke—she lives in Austin where she is a freelance writer and photographer. She likes writing historical and creative nonfiction, but also publishes interviews with musicians and filmmakers for magazines. She enjoys honky-tonk and other Texas music so much that she has a YouTube channel where she shares her favorite performers. Learn more about Miller by visiting her blog.

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