Not only is The Broken Spoke the oldest and most famous honky tonk joint still in operation, but it remains a local institution – every Austinite has a tale to tell about a night at The Spoke and the place is still immensely popular with locals, young and old, as much as foreigners. On our last night there a French couple who had returned for their second visit in two years spent the whole night doing the Texas Two Step on the dance floor.
James himself is a star, appearing with Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Clint Eastwood and other country music stars and celebrities in the photos that plaster the walls of The Spoke. Get down there any night of the week and you’ll find James looking spiffy in his cowboy hat and an embellished country shirt his daughter has made him, chatting to customers at the bar or out in the dance hall.
The Spoke is a family affair, a bona fide “mom and pop operation”: James’ wife works alongside him, one daughter is on the dance floor teaching lessons (she also mixes a mean margarita!), the other handles the management side of things, her husband is on the bar and her brother-in-law on the till.
But James is very much at the centre of the honky tonk action here, still booking bands and playing host to loyal dance hall fans. Every night without fail, James introduces the band as he has done since the early days. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get to hear him sing as we did. We sat down with James for a chat (and a little photo shoot) on our last night in Austin.
Why and when did you start The Broken Spoke?
When I was in the army, I was thinking about what I would do when I got out. My parents used to bring me to places like this, the Wagon Wheel and the Broken Arrow. They were great fun, so I thought I’d open something similar. I got out of the army September 25, 1964. I saw the tree out front, knew this was where I wanted my honky tonk to be, I built it, and we opened November 10, 1964.
What was the opening like?
We opened with two cigar boxes. We didn’t even have a cash register. I knew nothing else about running a honky tonk other than that we needed to offer cheap beer – it was 25 cents a bottle. The hardest thing I would ever do was put the price up to 30 cents! For the grand opening we gave away 300 free plates of BBQ. Everyone said, “you won’t last six months!” and here we are, the oldest surviving honky tonk.
What were those early days like?
In 1964 it was just the front room and I bartended 16 hours a day for a couple of years and family and friends helped out. I paid $2 a piece for the original chairs but they broke after two weeks because the guys used to arm wrestle and they’d lean back on them.
Music has been important since the start…
We had music from the first week. The band members’ kids would sleep by the stage. The bands played for tips only for a while there, then, when I could afford to, I paid them $25 on Fridays, $35 on Saturdays, and $32 on Sundays. In 1965 we added the dance hall and in 1966 we expanded it out back. The first big star was Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
That’s a great source of pride for you…
The guys at the bar didn’t believe I had booked Bob Wills. They were shocked when he walked in. It was a very proud moment for me when the band got onto the bandstand and everyone said “That’s Bob Wills!” Then came Willie (Nelson), Dolly (Parton)… we’ve had 20 Country Music Hall of Famers play here.
You’ve had a long association with Willie…
I first booked Willie in 1967. Johnny Bush was in his band, but Willie made it famous. I booked Willie for $800 a night back then. I never booked anyone I was going to make a loss from – I booked Johnny Cash. Willie shot Honeysuckle Rose here. I always paid him $800 a night even when he was earning $10,000 a night elsewhere!
What’s Willie’s connection to Austin?
His sister Bobbie lived in Austin first, then Willie moved here. Back then he was clean shaven, had short hair, wore a turtle neck sweater and blazer but he grew his hair after he moved to Austin. He opened Willie’s Pool Hall a couple of blocks away, then Pop Nelson took over running it.
Tell us about Willie’s tip jar.
When Willie got into trouble with the IRS we all decided to help him out cause the IRS took everything he owned. We set up a tip jar here for him and raised $10,000 and sent it to him. He came back to The Broken Spoke for Christmas that year and he bought Kris Kristofferson and a few other famous friends. He put on the tip jar: “Where there’s a Willie there’s a way”. Now, whenever he visits, he always gets up and plays for nothing. He was scheduled to do a live Texas show 5-6 years ago and he said he’d only do it here. It was a crazy night with big TV screens outside. You know Willie actually likes to be called William…
What have been some other highlights?
We’ve had lots of memorable evenings. Robert Duvall used to come here a lot – he used to like to be called Bobby. I’ll always remember the nights with Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, and George Strait most. George Strait and Ace in the Hole played here one night a week for seven years. When he had his first big hit Unwound, my wife put the poster of him up in the ladies bathroom. We’ve had lots of good times. Lots of movies have been made here. Some TV shows. I got to do a film with Dolly here and was able to talk to her for a really long time and she invited me to the premiere screening.
What’s been your key to success?
I’ve always thought if you give people cold beer, good whiskey, good food, good entertainment, good prices, pretty girls to dance with, you be nice to them, and you provide a down-home atmosphere – a true mom and pop operation – then you’ll be successful. I was born one mile up the road, so I’ve come a long way!
Can you imagine life without The Broken Spoke?
I was 25 when I started The Broken Spoke and now I’m 71. I had heart problems, my wife had cancer, though we’re now both in good health. We always had fundraisers for others, so when my wife had cancer they offered to have a fundraiser, but we didn’t want it, we said just keep coming here, that’s how you can help. As the older people have aged, we’ve had young people start to come here… The Broken Spoke is a way of life for many people.