James White, who owned one of Austin’s most popular honky-tonks, the legendary Broken Spoke dance hall, died today of congestive heart failure, according to his daughter. He was 81 and died at his home in South Austin.
White founded the Broken Spoke on South Lamar Boulevard in 1964, and it quickly became a staple for musicians and tourists alike.
“He gave us a place to perform the music we wanted to do in the atmosphere we wanted – a Texas dance hall,” said Ray Benson, talk to the American statesman from Austin. “James was one of the most magnanimous and generally kind people – with a capital ‘N’ – in this world.
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The Broken Spoke was a mecca for top country talent. Among his alumni are Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks.
White was the quintessential honky-tonk owner, a gregarious genre always decked out in cowboy hats, jeans, and boots. He was known to lead his crowds in the pledge of allegiance while displaying the family flag.
A native of Austin forever, White briefly worked in California in defense industry factories, then joined the United States Army in 1961. After military experience, he opened the Broken Spoke.
White booked western swing legends Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys in 1966, then brought in Willie Nelson in 1967. This started a tradition of better-known artists complementing young local artists.
Nelson repaid the favor by filming parts of his 1980 film Pink honeysuckle to the broken spoke. The place was also used as the setting for part of the film Dolly Parton and Gary Busey Wild Texas Wind in 1991, which featured club regulars Asleep at the Wheel.
The place was also commemorated in the 2016 documentary Honky-Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Ray, who told the story of the family hall through the eyes of the White family, musicians and dance hall patrons.
The Broken Spoke premiered on PBS Austin city limits, the Country Music Television special Honky Tonk sounds, as well as on the Discovery Travel Channel.
The Broken Spoke was inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame in 2010. The club celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2014.
White is survived by his daughter, Ginny Peacock. No commemorative plan has been revealed.