We ain't fancy, but we are darn sure country and the good news is we ain't changin' nothin'
James White - Owner, The Broken Spoke
Dancehalls have been a tradition in the Lone Star State since the mid-to-late 19th century, and there was a time when almost every town would have had one - some large, some on a more modest scale, providing a place for people to gather on a Saturday night and forget the stresses and strains of the working week with the help of some lively music and even livelier dancing. The Broken Spoke on South Lamar Boulevard in Austin is one of the most recently founded of the few remaining genuine1 Texas dancehalls, and it has managed to outlive many of the older ones, as they have seen attendances fall and century-old buildings collapse. In its relatively brief life The Broken Spoke has become more famous than some of the long-established dancehalls, and is certainly one of the most authentic places you'll ever find to go two-stepping.
The History of the Broken Spoke
Austin, Texas, 1964. James White has just come out of the army following his National Service and is pondering his future. He grew up in south Austin, and finding a plot of land available near his old home he decides to combine his love of country music with business and found a good old-fashioned Texas dancehall, just like the ones he knows so well. Building the wooden structure starts in September, and in the remarkably short period of six weeks the doors are opened for the first time to paying customers.
At the time, the city limits of Austin were about a mile to the north, and supposedly there wasn't another building in site. Things are very different today - the capital city of Texas has expanded over the years, and the Broken Spoke is now surrounded by apartment complexes and car repair businesses, but the spirit of country music is as strong as ever in this red-painted building.
James White had no trouble booking big-name country stars for his fledgling dancehall, since so many of the old dancehalls were closing down as rock-and-roll and pop music spread across America. More people now stayed at home to watch television instead of going out for their entertainment. Another factor which particularly affected Texas and the South was the spread of air conditioning into people's homes. During the sweltering summer, going out for the evening was a way of escaping the oppressive heat which built up indoors as temperatures during the dog days of summer often reached triple digits (Fahrenheit). As more and more people bought air conditioning units, that need to get out was no longer quite so important and many of them simply didn't bother any more, or at least, quite so much. That's not to say that all dancehalls had air conditioning - most of them didn't. In fact the only ventilation in many cases were shutters which were flung open so that a breeze - and plenty of insects - could blow over the dancefloor.
In 1966, James White was able to play host to his childhood hero - legendary western swing musician Bob Wills. The list of names to have played at the Spoke since then would not be out of place at the Grand Ole Opry. Roy Acuff, Hank Thompson, Kitty Wells, George Strait, Ernest Tubb, Grandpa Jones, Tex Ritter, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Randy Travis, and Dolly Parton have all had to duck their heads as they walked out onto that stage with the low ceiling2. The Broken Spoke has also been kind to plenty of lesser-known Texas artists, including Don Walser, Gary P. Nunn, Alvin Crowe, Asleep at the Wheel, Dale Watson, The Derailers, and the Geezinslaws, several of whom are (or have become) residents of Austin.
Let's take a walk inside
The first thing you notice as you approach the Broken Spoke is the massive spreading oak tree at the front of the car park - not an asphalt or concrete car park, but one covered with dirt and crushed rock. Off to the left of the building as you look at it from the front is an old tour bus which used to belong to the Texas Top Hands - a western swing band formed in 1946 and still in existence. Signs outside the front entrance announce 'Tables for ladies and gentlemen', 'Through this door pass the best country music dancers in the world', and 'The best chicken fried steak in town'3. If you happen to notice a big, white 1950s Cadillac parked right at the front of the building, you know that James White himself is in.
Walking through the door, you find yourself in the restaurant. Here you'll get good, 'down-home' Southern cooking - several kinds of barbecued meat, enchiladas4, and the aforementioned chicken fried steak. Look around - you may find Willie Nelson tucking into one at the table next to you. At the back of the restaurant is the bar, and this is far from being the kind of bar where you'll find fancy cocktails being mixed. Most Broken Spoke patrons will be drinking beer; probably one of the two most popular Texas beers, Lone Star or Shiner Bock, and usually from a bottle rather than draft.
To the left of the bar is a corridor leading to the actual dancehall. Before making your way to the back, take time to check out the Tourist Trap - a small room with a collection of country memorabilia to match that of the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Don't be embarrassed about walking into this goldmine of country music history - the locals won't think any less of you for doing so.
The dancehall area of the Broken Spoke is as unpretentious as the rest of the building. The ceiling is low and covered with battered polystyrene tiles. Around the wooden dancefloor and the table areas are neon signs advertising different brands of beer - many of which (even those from the big, corporate national brewers) make some kind of reference to Texas. Now you know for sure that you're in the Lone Star State. On a busy Friday or Saturday night, the dancefloor is not a good place for beginners. It's crowded, and people move around it quickly, so when you need to get to the bar or the toilet, choose your moment carefully - wait for a break in the music.
It's considered bad dancehall etiquette to 'hang out' on the dancefloor - you should only be there if you're dancing or getting from one place to another. Leaning against the rail with your drink will not only get you some hard stares, it'll also get your drink spilled, and you really don't want to have to explain to that six-foot tall, six-foot wide cowboy in the Stetson hat why half of your beer is now all over his freshly starched and pressed Wrangler5 jeans and his snakeskin boots.
You will see plenty of Stetsons at the Broken Spoke, as well as yards of blue denim, and rhinestones by the bucketload. Big, blonde hairdos are de rigeur for the ladies, for whom doors are always opened and hats tipped in greeting. Texans are often considered loud and brash, but good manners still matter here. There will be leather in abundance - both on the feet and around the waist, holding up those blue jeans with a buckle almost as big as the state of Texas itself. Don't feel out of place if you don't match up to this image though - there's hardly a friendlier place in Texas to enjoy a night out - after all, this is Austin.
Y'all come back now, y'hear?
A few last words of advice: the Broken Spoke regulars will be nice to you, so be nice to them. No matter what your views about certain matters may be, don't say anything disparaging about country music, Texas, beef, George Bush or gas-guzzling SUVs6. And please, no matter how drunk you are and how well you think it will go down, don't shout 'Remember the Alamo!'