James White, owner of Austin’s iconic Broken Spoke dance hall, dies at 81

Entertainment

Remembering a born-and-raised Austinite and a honky tonk legend

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The owner of Broken Spoke, one of Texas’ most legendary honky-tonks, died on Sunday.

James White, who opened the iconic Austin dance hall in 1964, died at the age of 81, the Broken Spoke announced.

“God bless you, James White. This man is a legend and Austin, Texas and country music is better because of him. He’s up in Honky Tonk Heaven. What an introduction every body will get as they get to Heaven then he’ll sing a song with them. April 12, 1939 – Jan 24, 2021.”

Broken Spoke

White had recently dealt with an illness and returned home from the hospital, according to the Broken Spoke. His family members told KXAN that he had been sick for about two months and ultimately died of congestive heart failure.

Family members of Broken Spoke owner James White update the marquee sign outside of the Austin venue to commemorate his life. White passed away on January 24, 2021. Photo taken January 24, 2021. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

Even as an octogenarian, White was a fixture around the dancehall which he ran along with his wife Annetta White, his two daughters Ginny White-Peacock and Terri White, and their employees. Over the years, White has welcomed in visitors to listen to music, enjoy food and drinks, and try out some Texas two-stepping. The Broken Spoke has been graced with the presence of many big names in music, from Dolly Parton to George Strait. White himself noted that more than 20 Country Music Hall of Fame members have performed at his venue.

Sunday, as news spread of White’s passing, people drove by the venue on South Lamar Boulevard in Austin to pay their respects. One man drove by and poured a drink out for White. Many others, including employees at different Austin music venues, brought flowers to adorn the wheels on the gate outside the dance hall.

Family members of James White, the owner of Austin honky-tonk the Broken Spoke, updated the marquee sign in front of the venue to commemorate his life. White passed away on January 24, 2021, at the age of 81. (KXAN Photo/ Andrew Choat).

Some of White’s family members dropped by as well, changing the letters on the marquee sign out front which had announced countless musicians over the years, to pay respect to the man behind the iconic venue.

“God Bless You James M. White 1939-2011,” the updated sign read.

  • Broken Spoke - James White memorial
  • Broken Spoke - James White memorial
  • Broken Spoke sign - James White death
  • Flowers outside of Broken Spoke - James White
  • Sign outside of Broken Spoke - James White
  • Flowers outside of Broken Spoke - James White
  • Flowers outside of Austin's Broken Spoke

Ginny White-Peacock, one of White’s daughters, spoke to KXAN Sunday about her father, noting that he was, “just a generous honest person.”

“God put him on this earth to have him entertain people and make them feel welcome,” White-Peacock said.

“He said he wanted to build a place like no other, where people could come and have a good time and listen to country music,” she recalled of her father. “And after he built it, he named it the Broken Spoke.”

“My uncle James White has left this earth to the Honky Tonk in the Sky,” nephew Justin Wells wrote in a Facebook tribute. “Please keep my extended family in your prayers.”

Below, White talks to KXAN at the Broken Spoke’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2014.

In an interview in 2014 about the Broken Spoke reaching its 50th anniversary, one of James White’s daughters, Terri White made it clear her dad had no plans of retiring from the honky-tonk business anytime soon.

“My dad loves the limelight because he’s proud of it,” she said, “’til he’s dead, he’s not gonna go anywhere.”

James White said as much during the same interview: “with the Lord’s help and my good doctors, I will still keep on rolling, because we rolled through the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s the 2000’s, and with your help we’ll keep on rolling a the Broken Spoke,”

White’s family tells KXAN the best way to help them during this time is to continue to support and visit the Broken Spoke.

An image of James White, owner of Austin honky-tonk the Broken Spoke. White passed away on January 24, 2021, at the age of 81. Photo Courtesy Broken Spoke, Facebook.

A piece of Austin history

White’s family explained that he was born and raised in Austin. Ray Benson, of the band Asleep at the Wheel, has been a friend of White’s for decades, and remembered listening to White share stories about how Austin used to be and a ranch that belonged to his uncle in present-day Oak Hill.

“He was link to the past and a genuine friend,” Benson said of White.

According to Donna Marie Miller, author of “The Broken Spoke: Austin’s Legendary Honky-Tonk,” White built the venue himself after receiving an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army. The dance hall has hosted some of the biggest names in Texas and country music, including George Strait, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, and Kris Kristofferson. Country legend Strait even used the visage of the Broken Spoke for the cover of his 2019 album, “Honky Tonk Time Machine.”

The bar was also the subject of the 2016 documentary “Honky Tonk Heaven: The Legend of the Broken Spoke,” which featured locals and musicians from far and wide explaining the venue’s impact in their lives and in music.

“James White was an original Austinite,” Benson said of his friend. “He built that place, the Broken Spoke by hand, with the help of his friends and family, and he ran it with his family — true to the tradition of Texas dancehalls — which was creating a place for dancing and great country– Texas country music.”

People dropped off flowers and tributes to James White outside the Broken Spoke in Austin. January 24, 2021. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

“And I love the new people who are moving to town, who are adding all different kinds of things to town,” Benson added. “But as I told people, when I moved here, I came here to be a Texan and to enjoy what we know about Texas culturally, and that’s what I hope the people who come to town realize, that Broken Spoke and places like it, are the treasures that built this town.”

Benson said he was 22 years old when he first met White. At the time, Benson was came to Austin with the band Asleep at the Wheel to play at the Broken Spoke. He recalled that White payed the band $300 to pay at the time.

“He was the friendliest guy, seriously,” Benson said of White. “And in the honky tonk business, most of the owners aren’t that friendly, to be that honest with you.”

A sign outside the Austin venue the Broken Spoke reads “George Strait’s Honky Tonk Hangout.” January 24, 2021. (KXAN Photo/ Andrew Choat).

Benson has been advising visitors to Austin to head to the Broken Spoke to learn to two-step for years. He recalls seeing celebrities and politicians in the dance hall enjoying the world White created in the dance hall on South Lamar.

“I remember George [W.] Bush being down there quite a bit,” Benson noted.

The inside of the Broken Spoke is what Benson describes as a “museum” with plenty of pictures and merchandise from the artists who’ve made their way inside over the years: Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, George Strait, Alvin Crown, Dale Watson, Roy Acuff, Garth Brooks among others.

“The Whites insisted upon the quality of the music,” said Monte Warden of the band The Wagoneers. “It sends the signal to club owners and venues all around the nation, if you headline at the Broken Spoke, you’re good.”

He added that in the late 1970’s, there was a time when George Strait would play at the Broken Spoke every Wednesday and it cost a dollar to get in.

A flier on the wall at the Austin venue the Broken Spoke advertises a performance decades ago from the Ace in the Hole band featuring George Strait. Photo taken April 30, 2020 (KXAN Photo/Todd Bailey).

Warden knew White because The Wagoneers played at the Broken Spoke the last Friday of every month “for years and years.”

Seven years ago, Warden said that through tracing their lineage far back into Texas history, White realized the two were distant cousins.

“After that moment, even though I had known Mr. White for 37 years, I was just ‘Cousin Monte,'” Warden recalled.

Warden also noted that White was “extraordinarily patriotic” and made a point of having The Wagoneers start their show with the pledge of allegiance.

People dance at the Broken Spoke in Austin at the venue’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2014.

“When it started off with the Pledge, it didn’t seem corny or old time-y, it seemed like the right thing to do,” he noted.

For those who haven’t been to the Broken Spoke yet or are new to Austin, Warden urged them to drop by for a visit to the honky tonk.

“It’s not just gonna stay there because we want it to, it’s gonna stay there if they keep showing up,” he noted.

A challenging road for an iconic venue

The past few years have not been easy for White and his family. In 2018, White’s daughter Ginny was hospitalized with a serious medical condition, which not only took an emotional toll on a family but also strained this family-run operation.

“This has got to be probably the worst battle or the hardest mountain to climb that I’ve ever had to deal with,” White told KXAN at the time.

Rep. Roger Williams held a press conference in September 2020 about the Save our Stages Act at Broken Spoke in Austin. Williams speaks with James White, the owner of the Broken Spoke. (KXAN photo/Julie Karam)

As with all of Austin’s bars and live music venues, the pandemic brought logistical challenges to the Broken Spoke. White spoke to KXAN in May about the confusion of navigating the state and local rules during the pandemic surrounding how they could safely open.

Then in July, the front of the venue was damaged and someone stole the dance hall’s ATM machine.

“Well, I feel real bad about it,” says White. “It’s just that… they keep throwing stuff at me. They closed me up twice,” he explained, referring to the statewide orders for bars to close to stop the spread of COVID-19, “and now this happens. It’s tough.”

In September, Congressional Representative Roger Williams (R-Texas) gave a press conference at the Broken Spoke about the Save our Stages Act to provide relief to music venues.

A photo of the Broken Spoke on April 30, 2020 (KXAN Photo/Todd Bailey)

During that press conference, the Broken Spoke was closed due to COVID-19 regulations, though it was able to reopen again the following month. At the press conference, White had said, “the Broken Spoke is a mom-and-pop operation, we’ve been here for 55 years, but now we’re closed for business.”

“It really upsets me, it’s a heartfelt thing,” White continued. “Way back in 1964, I came underneath that big ol’ oak tree out there, and I walked across the dirt parking lot, and I visualized a place like no other.”

A photo of James White, owner of Austin venue the Broken Spoke. April 30, 2020. (KXAN Photo/Todd Bailey)

In a video on January 17, 2021, on the Broken Spoke Facebook page, White left a video message from the hospital, updating fans of the venue about his health.

“I wanna thank all my good friends for praying for me, and to be in their thoughts,” White said.

“Now, I kind of rehabilitate and start using my legs more and do some walking, and hopefully, I’ll see you soon. Thank you very much,” he said as the video ended.

Texans, musicians, and Broken Spoke guests pay respects

The marquee outside of the Austin honky-tonk the Broken Spoke commemorates the life of owner James White. Photo taken January 24, 2020. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

Immediately following the news of White’s death, many Austin-area residents, Texans, musicians and people who’d frequented Broken Spoke took to social media to honor him.

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