James White and the Broken Spoke

By Elizabeth McQueen

When I visited Austin for the first time, I made a beeline for the Broken Spoke. I was living in the DC Metro Area and had developed a love of old school country music. I’d heard about Austin’s scene of people who felt the same way, and knew that if you dug country music, you had to check out the Broken Spoke.

I grew up in Arkansas and the East Coast, and I had seen a lot of things — but I had never seen a place like the Broken Spoke.It hailed itself as a “honky-tonk,” a word I had only heard sung by long-dead mid-twentieth century country stars. When you walked in the door, you entered a rustic looking bar/restaurant that actually reminded me of some of the best restaurants in Denver. Beyond that was the dancehall;  low-ceilinged with a small stage rising above a large dance floor – where people were actually dancing.

I had no concept of what a two-step was. I saw couples moving around in a circle, rocking in rhythm, one partner occasionally spinning another. I remember thinking it looked so beautiful — like people were doing the Viennese Waltz to a country song. And even though I had never been to a honky-tonk before, this one felt like home.

The experience was one of the reasons I would later move to Austin. And the Broken Spoke would become one of the places I frequented. Once I started spending time there, I realized that there was a reason it felt so good — because the owner, James White, set the tone.

I’ll be honest, I never knew James that well. I never had dinner at his house, he never had dinner at mine. But I knew how he made me feel. As I started playing music, I would perform at the Broken Spoke — I played my first SXSW showcase there, and later, when I joined Asleep at Wheel, I would play the yearly Christmas show. Every time I saw James he said hello, called me by my name, and made me feel welcome in his place. 

When my husband, Dave Sanger, asked me to marry him, I knew it was a yes. And I knew exactly where I wanted to get married — at the Broken Spoke. Dave thought it was a great idea. And so, on March 15, 2004, the Monday before SXSW, we got hitched at our favorite dancehall. We pretty much invited everyone we knew. It was an amazing experience, to partner up in a place that made so many people feel comfortable, but also made them feel a sense of wonder. Most of my friends and family from out of town had never been in a real honky-tonk before. They marveled at the memorabilia on the walls and the trough in the men’s bathroom. They felt at home in the place that James built.

The news of James White’s passing has hit people hard. As Austin grew, a ton of funky old places got sold and disappeared. But James didn’t let that happen to the Broken Spoke. In recent years I would marvel at how the Broken Spoke has adapted to new Austin. It looked like the house in the Pixar movie “Up”  –  a worn treasure literally surrounded by sparkly new condos.  

James must have known that his place was magical and that once it was gone, the loss for Austin would be real. But now I see that it wasn’t just the building, but the spirit imbued in it by the owner — a man who always treated you like you were welcome — like you were home.

The Broke Spoke will carry on without James, and I believe the spirit that he brought to the place will persist. After all, he opened the Spoke in 1964 and put so much of himself into it. From now on when we visit the honky-tonk, we won’t be able to see him smile or say hello, but I’m sure we’ll still feel his presence, as we listen to the band and dance in slow circles on the dancefloor. 

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