Tailgate Time: An Old Tin Roof and Neon Lights

James White, owner of the Broken Spoke in Austin, Texas, says "We built it. We own it. We run it. We're proud of it. We do it the way we've always done it." Mack Ray

Published on: Apr 21, 2005

I recently had the unexpected pleasure of wandering into the Broken Spoke dance hall in Austin, Texas on a Saturday night. And not just any Saturday night, either, but this was between March 2, which is Texas Independence Day, and March 6, which this year was the 100th birthday of Bob Wills, the granddaddy of western swing music. So there was much to celebrate, and we just got sort of swept up in the festivities.

Austin touts itself as the live music capital of the world and considers itself a country music Mecca surpassing even Nashville, but you couldn't prove it by me. Until that night I had yet to hear any live country music in Texas, so we set out to correct that situation. Just one problem, though. Since our daughters and their friends were not yet of legal drinking age, most of the music joints would not admit them. Apparently the live music capital of the world is just not available to those under 21, which seems wrong somehow.

But a quick phone call established that the Broken Spoke was pleased to admit boot scooters of all ages, so that's where we went. We found the place, a ramshackle tin-roofed joint on the south side of town that obviously had once been out in the country until the city bellied up to it.

There was concrete dance floor with a low stage on one end, lots of neon beer signs, and chairs and tables off to the sides. The crowd was mostly older couples wearing their cleanest Stetsons and their dancing boots, but there were a few college kids in their flip flops, and a contingent of little girls dancing mostly with each other.

Music was furnished by Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys. Alvin sings and wields a mean fiddle, and he's been a central Texas fixture since the '70's or longer. The band tuned up and bailed off into a medley of Bob Wills songs, as a tsunami of dancers washed out onto the floor. They shuffled and two-stepped in an elliptical circuit around the floor, sort of like roller skaters. You could tell they had been holding back, just waiting for all this.

Alvin and the boys laid out easy, loping rhythms spiked with soaring fiddle and guitar solos, and they went at it for over two hours before they took a break. By the time they played "Waltz Across Texas," it was elbow to elbow on the dance floor, and there was hardly an occupied chair anywhere. "Hardest working band I've ever seen," somebody said to me, but the pickers were smiling almost as much as the dancers, rolling out one old favorite after another with no apparent effort.

When they finally took a break, Alvin introduced our host, James White, who built the Broken Spoke himself when he finished a stint in the Army. James complimented the band and welcomed and thanked everybody, especially his wife Anneta, then launched into his pitch, which went largely like this:

"We've been here since 1964, and Bob Wills played here, and Ernest Tubb and Tex Ritter and Roy Acuff and Willie Nelson played here before he went to Nashville. We built it. We own it. We run it. We're proud of it. We do it the way we've always done it. You won't find any ferns hanging up in here. We don't sell bottled water. When you order a cheeseburger, you won't get Grey Poupon mustard on it, you get the real thing here. We haven't changed anything. And we've still got the best chicken fried steaks in town."

James got up with the band and sang a couple of songs after that. You can tell he's worked very hard at his combination saloon and restaurant and juke joint for over 40 years now, but you can also tell he's still having a fine time doing it.

Later on, a girl in her early 20s sang a beautiful duet with Alvin. As it got later, the band moved away from the western swing standards and rocked it up a bit with some Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly, a couple more West Texas music icons. By the time they played "I Fought the Law and the Law Won," pretty much everybody was in the groove to stay. My pattern was to dance with my wife or daughters or anybody else I could corral until I started getting sweaty, then I would sit out and cool off with a Lone Star.

I took a picture of a bumper sticker on the wall by the bar that said, "I'd rather be a fencepost in Texas than the king of Tennessee."

It don't matter who's in Austin, Bob Wills is still the king.

Author's note: After years of threats, I have finally put together my own web page. If you are so inclined, you can go to www.webspawner.com/users/mackray/index.html to read this column as well as some of my favorite columns from the past. Be sure to look at the gallery of photos, sign the guestbook, or email me at MackR@aol.com. I would be glad to hear your own stories of bafflement and wonder concerning farming and country living in the 21st century. Archived articles, beginning with the March 2005 issue can be found on this Web site.