James White, the founder and owner of legendary Austin honky-tonk bar and restaurant Broken Spoke, died on Sunday, January 24, as first reported by the Statesman. The 81-year-old had been dealing with congestive heart failure and had heart surgery in mid-January.
Through Broken Spoke, White cultivated, nurtured, and kept the live country music scene thriving in Texas. Under his watch, the venue became an iconic country music venue, dance hall, bar, and restaurant. It was the place to take in concerts from local and big-name country musicians, where people could enjoy watching others two-step or just learn how to do it themselves through lessons, and where people could dine on classic chicken-fried steak (at one point, Broken declared that it was the “last of the true Texas Dance Halls serving the best chicken fried steak in Texas”).
Since Broken opened in the 1960s, the South Lamar neighborhood has undergone major changes since it opened. Now the venue is surrounded by higher-rise mixed-use developments, but still, it stands.
White, who was born in Austin in 1939, had wanted to open a honky-tonk, and fulfilled that goal after he left the army in 1964, according to Statesman. He often sought out local musicians to play Broken, including Willie Nelson, as well as other notable figures like Garth Brooks, the Chicks (then known as the Dixie Chicks), Ray Benson, and Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys, among others. George Strait even featured the honky-tonk on the cover of his 2019 album Honky Tonk Machine.
There’s even a documentary chronicling the history and significance of the Broken Spoke. Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke, from directors Brenda Greene Mitchell and Sam Wainwright Douglas, documents White’s important cultural contributions, how the family kept the honky-tonk going despite the years and the city’s rapid development, and why the government should do more to protect cultural establishments such as Broken, amongst shots of concerts and the packed dance floor
It’s been a hard and turbulent year for the Broken Spoke. There’s the novel coronavirus pandemic, forcing the venue to cycle through closings and reopenings while navigating often-changing safety measures. Then, in late July, three men ran a truck straight into the dance hall and stole an ATM. The bar launched a very successful GoFundMe campaign to repair the damage and a bunch of volunteers came to help clean up the mess. Currently, it’s open for on-site services: food, drinks, live music, and dancing but lessons aren’t being offered.
As part of the city of Austin’s COVID-19 relief funds, the local government created the Iconic Venue Fund, which would designate and give money to emblematic restaurants, bars, and venues, including the Broken Spoke.
Broken Spoke will remain open under White’s wife Annetta White, daughters Terry White and Ginny White-Peacock, along with Ginny’s husband Michael Peacock, according to Chronicle.
After Broken Spoke shared the news of White’s death on social media on Sunday, people went to the South Lamar venue to leave flowers and messages. The family changed the marquee to honor White as well, writing “God bless you James M. White, 1939 - 2021.” Likewise, Austin venues, bars, and restaurants shared condolences and memories of White on social media.
South Congress venue the Continental Club’s Steve Wertheimer shared a photo on Instagram of himself, his business partner Pete Gordon, and the late Clifford Antone with White, writing that it’s a “very sad day for all of us not only in Austin but around the world,” and that the Broken Spoke “was much more than just a music venue, it was family.”
On Twitter, Red River club Elysium wrote that White “was always a gentleman and class act.”
James was always a gentleman and class act all around. He will be missed. https://t.co/2Ti0pQdH7m— Elysium (@ElysiumAustin) January 25, 2021
- Austin music icon James White, Broken Spoke’s owner, dies at 81 [Statesman]
- Broken Spoke [Facebook]
- Broken Spoke Patriarch James White Passes at 81 [Chronicle]
- All Coverage of Broken Spoke [EATX]