James White: Bob Wills put Broken Spoke ‘On the map’ in 1966

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — By the time 1966 came around, the Broken Spoke was just another Texas dance hall, struggling to find its way. James White had an idea to put the honky tonk on the map.

It would take a miracle to convince the biggest name in Texas music history to go to south Lamar Boulevard. “What the hell,” White thought, and put word out to the King of Western Swing that he had an open invitation to the then, not so world famous Broken Spoke.

James White called this his “proudest moment,” the night he welcomed Bob Wills to the Broken Spoke for a one-night booking in 1966. It was the first of three shows Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys played at the Broken Spoke. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

White was bartending and selling beer for 25 cents a pop that night in 1966 when he told the “drunks holding down the bar,” as he described them, that Bob Wills would be walking through the door that night in 1966.

Of course, White’s bar quickly filled with thunderous laughter.

“About that time the front door opened up and Bob Wills stepped in. He was all by himself, had his cowboy hat on, cigar in his mouth, had his fiddle in his arm and all the drunks in the bar they just about fell off the bar stools,” White told KXAN. “They started punching each other and whispering then they said, man that’s Bob Wills.”

At the time, Wills spent more than three decades as one of the most prolific country artists in the nation. Wills and his Texas Playboys reached national acclaim as hits like “San Antonio Rose,” “Faded Love,” “Ida Red” and “Cherokee Maiden” solidified Wills as the “King of Western Swing.”

White and Wills posed for a picture inside the Broken Spoke’s restaurant; Wills’ cowboy hat cocked to the side and in his hand was his signature: a cigar.

The dance floor, which looks the same as it did that night in 1966, was packed, White remembered.

“All eyes were on Bob Wills because he was a star, he was a legend. I’ll never forget it, there he was, my proud moment was to walk Bob Wills on that band stand. The first big star I’d ever booked,” White recalled in a July 2019 interview with KXAN.

This grainy photograph inside the Broken Spoke’s “Tourist Trap” shows Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys playing the Broken Spoke in the 1960s. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

From that night on, White said the Broken Spoke was “on the map.” Texas’ biggest country music legend had graced the stage of what would become known as the “World Famous Broken Spoke.”

According to James White.

“That was my proud moment, I got to come over and welcome Bob Wills to the Broken Spoke,” White said. “Like 50 some odd years ago and just think if he was to come in that door today, what he would do? It would be unbelievable.”

White went on to book Bob Wills two more times; once in 1967 and again for the final time in 1968. Wills died seven years later following a stroke.

Over the next 50-plus years, White welcomed the likes of Ernest Tubb, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Ray Price and many other members of Texas country music royalty. White didn’t hold Oklahoma against Garth Brooks when Brooks made a surprise appearance on White’s bandstand in 2018.

James White called this cigar that Bob Wills partially-smoked his prized possession. It was gifted to White by Wills’ daughter, Rosetta, along with a pair of Wills’ cowboy boots. The boots and cigar are on display inside the Broken Spoke. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

Brooks even left his acoustic guitar behind with an autograph on it, which White displayed proudly at the doorway leading from the Broken Spoke’s restaurant to the famous dance floor.

The legendary James White died Sunday after a lengthy stay in the hospital with a heart issue, according to his family.

White spent his final 57 years building an Austin icon; a place White said defined him as a man.

“What do you want people to look back and remember James White for,” KXAN’s Jody Barr asked White in a July 2019 interview. “I tell my wife on my headstone you can say he created a place where people can have a good time and when he got it built, he named it the Broken Spoke.”

“When I email somebody and they want to know about the place, I always sign off: James M. White, Broken Spoke, owner, builder and name giver. It took me a long time to think that name up and I’m real proud of it,” White said.

White believed “The Spoke” has helped keep Western Swing alive over the past 50-plus years with constant bookings with today’s Western Swing artists like Austin’s Jason Roberts, acts like Billy Mata and Dale Watson.

“We did it and didn’t even realize we were doing it, we just did it because we wanted to do it,” White told KXAN in 2019, “I’m damn sure glad I did it, though.”

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