The Broken Spoke, on South Lamar in Austin, was established in 1964 by proprietor James White and claims to be the "last of the true Texas dance halls." The Broken Spoke is a bastion for traditional country music. Its standard honky-tonk decor—red-checkered tablecloths, low ceilings, pool tables, and neon lights—appeals to city folk as well as those from the country. As one reporter stated, "Here, on the skating rink–type dance floor, cowpokes mix with city slickers and good ol' gals gather with alternachicks—with lots of intermingling going on." Owner White says the Broken Spoke is about showing people a good time in a safe, family-friendly atmosphere. "It doesn't matter if you are a millionaire or a ditch digger, all can have a good time at the Spoke."
The Broken Spoke opened for business as a cafe on November 10, 1964. The name was inspired by the owner's memories of a movie (starring James Stewart) called Broken Arrow, along with his fondness for wagon wheels. When customers started dancing to music from the jukebox, White moved the pool tables and added more room. People were still dancing anywhere they could, including out on the dirt parking lot underneath the big oak tree. Other customers played a few of the songs they had written. Never one to pass up an opportunity, White expanded the Broken Spoke to its current size in 1966, when he added a dance floor.
Local groups started performing at the Spoke as early as 1964. White was later able to book more well-known acts, including Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter, Ray Price, Floyd Tillman, and Ernest Tubb. In the 1970s, he booked the "outlaw" bands that had gained notoriety by rebelling against Nashville's more mainstream sound. Leading this brigade were Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. Such Texas favorites as the Dixie Chicks and George Strait also played the Broken Spoke when they were just starting out. Although these superstars moved on, other well-loved performers such as Jerry Jeff Walker and Gary P. Nunn continued to play the Broken Spoke in the third millennium. Local favorites included the Geezinslaw Brothers, Chris Wall, Dale Watson, the Derailers, and Alvin Crow.
In 1988 Crow and White formed a record label, the Broken Spoke Company, which White states is "all for fun. There's no fancy recording studio—just the stage at the Broken Spoken on Monday when it's closed." A singer and songwriter himself, White has performed with many of the Spoke's acts, including Willie Nelson and the Sons of the Pioneers. He has also written songs such as "Where There's a Willy, There's a Way" and "The Broken Spoke Legend," which appears on Alvin Crow's album Pure Country.
The Broken Spoke has been featured on PBS's Austin City Limits, the Country Music Television special "Honky Tonk Sounds," as well as on the Discovery Travel Channel. Nelson filmed parts of his movie Honeysuckle Rose (1980) there, and the Dolly Parton–Gary Busey film Wild Texas Wind (1991), featuring Broken Spoke mainstay Asleep at the Wheel, was partly filmed there. The Spoke is also known for showcasing young Texas country talent. According to White, "We like the cover stuff, but we like original songs more. We like to have the steel guitar and fiddles. They define Texas country from other country music."
The Broken Spoke was inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame in 2010. The club celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2014. The Broken Spoke features live music nightly, Tuesday through Saturday. The kitchen, source of the Spoke's famous chicken fried steak, is open from 11:00 in the morning until 10:30 (weekdays) or 11:30 at night. "The Tourist Trap Room," created as part of the club's twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, contains an array of country music memorabilia. Texas Highways, National Geographic, and Entertainment Weekly have honored the Broken Spoke for its down-home cooking and traditional Texas honky-tonk atmosphere.
Ernest Tubb once told White to "keep it country." "I've always kept it country," White said, "for him and myself. The Broken Spoke ain't fancy, but it sure is country."