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DONNA MARIE MILLER is a freelance writer, photographer, and videographer living in Austin. Her work has appeared in Alternate Root, Americana Rhythm, Austin Food, Austin Fusion, Austin Monthly, Creative Screenwriting, Elmore, Fiddler, and Texas Highways magazines.
HISTORY / MUSIC
Donna Marie Miller
Foreword by Charles R. Townsend
Hardcover, 256 pages, 978-1-62349-519-0, $24.95; also available in ebook formats
Reviewed by Si Dunn
In the early 1960s, James White was far from Austin and longing to hear country music. He was an American soldier stationed in Okinawa, serving on a launch and maintenance crew for Nike Hercules missiles. The nearest dirt-floor bar had a jukebox but only two country-western songs. White and his buddies played them over and over.
Meanwhile, White wondered what he would do once his enlistment ended, and an image inspired by Western movies began forming in his mind. He would have “a place” of his own — something grander than a dirt-floor bar.
In her entertaining and engaging new book, The Broken Spoke: Austin’s Legendary Honky-Tonk, Austin writer Donna Marie Miller describes what happened next: the humble birth of a honky-tonk now known around the world.
“The day James received his honorable discharge from the army, at twenty-five years old,” she writes, “he began building the one-room honky-tonk and called it the Broken Spoke. It opened November 10, 1964, about a mile outside what was then the Austin city limits.” (It’s well inside the city limits now.)
The author paints warm, inviting portraits of the Broken Spoke, plus the bright and sometimes startling parade of musical stars that have delighted listeners and dancers. Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, the Dixie Chicks, Roy Acuff, and Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel, yes. But famed University of Texas running back Earl Campbell, singing “You Never Call Me by My Name”? And actor Robert Duvall doing a tango? Yes and yes.
Miller also digs into the struggles and hard times that sometimes threatened the Broken Spoke’s success and longevity. The honky-tonk opened with almost no money on hand, she writes. But James White’s wife, Annetta White, and other family members also played key roles in helping the new venture survive. Annetta White recalls, “We didn’t have a dime to spare. When we sold one case of beer, we went and bought another case. We had ten dollars in a cigar box when we opened.”
“The Broken Spoke is a little bit like the Alamo now,” popular Austin musician Marcia Ball states in the book. “The Broken Spoke draws tourists to town, to Texas really.”
The staying power of James White’s honky-tonk has become legendary. But it got a second big test during an era that spawned a hit movie starring John Travolta. Marcia Ball recalls how “James White weathered all of the competition that ever existed in this town. In the late 1970s when Austin was overrun by pre-fab metal buildings pumping out Urban Cowboy-type country music, James White just stayed there in this little spot and kept it real.”
Indeed, she adds, “James is still here and it’s still real.”
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Si Dunn is an Austin novelist, screenwriter, and book reviewer.
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