I look out the car window into the emblazoned world that the neon along South Lamar Boulevard paints up. Many treasures are hidden in the shadows of the alleys and while some of them are hard to find if you don’t know where to look, some are more well known–and for good reasons too.
Tonight it’s two-stepping time and where else to do it if not at the Broken Spoke, the number one spot for country music lovers’ first visit to Austin, Texas. Wednesday through Saturday it’s packed with tourists and beginners who want to get an understanding of how to do things around here. But don’t let the first impression of a tourist trap fool you. At 9pm, when the band hits the stand, you’ll find plenty of regulars and serious dancers swirling around this warped and skewed old dance floor.
We arrive early to get us some steaks and make our way to booth B1—in the corner, at the table, by the jukebox – to paraphrase James Hand, but tonight there will be dancing to Dale Watson. As far as dance music goes, he’s a safe bet and we’re hoping to enjoy some of his best tonight, like “Whiskey or God,” “Tequila and Teardrops” or maybe even “Heaven’s Gonna Have A Honky-Tonk.”
It seems to me that most Texans know how to dance – at least the ones who visits this kind of establishments. But asking somebody you fancy to dance could end up in a farce and you risk losing face. Two-stepping ain’t as easy as it looks. I’ve tried it many times and never really managed to satisfy my partners expectations. And the fact that these dances are organized to go in one direction to ensure there’s room for everybody makes it even harder. I still practice occasionally and hope that one day I’ll be on that floor spinning my darling around. Until then, I can’t do much but watch her dance while I, stunted, sit and sip.
Dinner is being served — we’ve both ordered chicken-fried steak with home fries, biscuits and gravy — all cooked down home style. This place has a full bar so we toast the meal down with some Bellows bourbon on the side and order another pitcher of Lone Star. There’s a line forming all the way through the restaurant, from the front door to the opening leading to the dance hall. They’re all here for dance lessons before the real party begins and it warms my heart to see this culture thrive and I’m proud to be a part of it.
The jukebox is playing selections of its own, preparing the crowd for what to expect. Ranging from oldies like Johnny Horton and Jerry Reed to new releases from LeAnn Rimes, this kind of music has been calling me to the dance floor for almost two decades now. My legs are asking me to move, my heart is asking me to be true, but my head’s on top of it all, telling me not to make a fool of myself. “One step at a time,” I tell myself, “one step at a time.”
It’s a quarter past eight and the dance disciples have squeezed themselves into the dance hall, leaving the restaurant to me, my darling, a few pool players, and the jukebox. There’s still another hour until Dale hits the stage so we allow ourselves another shot. We hear soft music coming from the back room, but the announcer’s voice is strong. To my ears, it sounds like they’re line dancing in there. Let’s hope not!
The Broken Spoke is not as old as some of the other places we frequent, but it sure deserves it’s place in the history of honky-tonks. Owners James and Annetta White built it themselves in 1964 when 3201 South Lamar Boulevard was on the outskirts of town. It soon became the Austin landmark for country music and acts like Bob Wills, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Hank Thompson made people travel from all around the country to visit. By far the most famous act to hit the big-time from his regular performances at the Broken Spoke is George Strait. In fact, the entire ladies’ room in the restaurant is adorned with magazine cut-outs of Strait shellacked to the wall — even the paper towel holder.
The Spoke is where you go to hear country music in all its raw truth. It could be your dead end if you try to make it here with a fake attitude — the music coming from this stage is true country talent. The audience at the Spoke would never forgive you if you didn’t play it like you lived it. There’s a few who experienced that, but I’m not here to make a fool of anybody but my self, which happens occasionally.
I’ve had moments at the Spoke without music. The daytime atmosphere is calm and relaxed and it’s hard to fathom you’re a few short miles from the Texas State Capitol, in a city that’s home to almost a million people. A perfect spot to be left alone for a couple of hours.
A cold beer, accompanied by the sounds coming from the kitchen and the bar, provides me the respite I need to get back on my feet and give this world another round. Modern life doesn’t have much room for thoughts of yesterday but with places like this, we can all empty the vacuum of urban life and fill it with the substantial feeling of belonging to the history we all derive from. The old honky-tonks and beer joints are there for us, to serve as cornerstones in a community of people with a taste for what we summarize as country.
The music unnoticeably changed to something we recognize as Dale Watson and it’s time to move into the dancehall. If you want to experience the performance dancing, you have to pay a charge of seven dollars. Otherwise, it works fine to hang around the bar that’s located in between the two large rooms. We decide to wait a couple of minutes and brace ourselves with another shot of the Spoke’s well bourbon.
The dancers are in full swing and the sound of boots scraping the wooden floor is almost as loud as the music coming from the band. The bands playing here are required to serve up three sets a night, giving the audience plenty of opportunity to make their way to the bar. Bud Light is the most common choice here, but I see a lot of whiskey going down too. And water. It won’t be long until this room is steaming.
The first set is all covers and I’m thinking Dale is saving up for when the crowd gets a little warmer. The new disciples easily embrace the unofficial Spoke policy to keep the two-stepping rotating counterclockwise. A task not to easy to perform while trying to take two steps in front of the next, which is one step—all to the rhythm of the music. The best advice I heard about this clumsy-at-first “3 step” is “Don’t think about it, just do it.” And sure enough, even on a two-beat or 4/4 song, it seems to work—if you actually get out and try it. The circle of dancers pass in front of me, smooth as a game of shuffleboard.
The band plays on, the music seems to come from a never-ending source, and there’s little talk between songs. It’s still all covers and it seems to me this is the night where the crowd gets their fill. People are here to dance, and without any trace of hesitation, Dale delivers. My darling is out there on the dance floor being spun around happily and if there’s anything I’ve learned here in Texas, it’s that dance halls are not the place to cruise. Dancing is serious fun, and everybody knows their temporary dance partner likely has somebody following your steps from somewhere in the dimly lit recesses of the dance hall.
It’s getting late and the dance floor is a little less crowded. I now realize the only light that’s been on here tonight is the neon signs advertising different kinds of beer. I think about the neon out on South Lamar and how they’re all part of the same commercial ideal, while the signs in here seem to speak with a softer voice, convincing me that there’s another side of the story. A story I feel a stronger connection too.
The band’s been playing for three hours and they now announce the last song—a slow waltz. Everybody here has paid their tribute to the band and I see satisfied faces all around me. Drinking might be the easiest and most common way to explore the honky-tonks, but two-stepping is the true path to embrace this culture.
The bar is open yet another hour while the couples and the lonely gather around for one last drink before moving on–sharing the aftermath of a great night at the Spoke. My darling is happy, and with rose-colored cheeks she asks me if I’ve felt lonely. It ain’t possible to feel lonely at a dance hall like this, I answer, I’m just as happy and satisfied as her. Then I promise her, as I promise my self—this is the last time I don’t dance.
The Broken Spoke holds Valentine’s Day dances every year. The pictures in this article is from such an event.
Words & Photographs: C.C. Ekstrom