“The Spoke is a cross between an old Texas honky-tonk and a dance hall, and the audience is as diverse as Austin,” Watson told CMT Edge before a late November set. “Early on, I remember seeing that the best acts were playing the Spoke. It’s the Grand Ole Opry of Texas, and I always aimed at performing there myself one day.”
He clearly succeeded. Watson jolts alive an energetic and enthusiastic capacity crowd here every Saturday night. He has for years. Watson’s weekly residency has gradually cultivated legend: Some travel from as far away as Japan and New Zealand simply to witness the singer’s singularly old-school country show from his home base’s hardwood dance floor.
Such journeys pay dividends. No spirit like the Spoke exists elsewhere. As urban development overtakes its South Lamar neighborhood — huge new apartment complexes currently are popping up on either side — the dusky venue has remained as steady and sure as Watson’s finest Sun Sessions material. Chicken fried steaks for dinner. Dance lessons spark interest nightly from 8 to 9 p.m. Newcomers and regulars, always an eclectic mix pairing hippies and pierced college kids with businessmen and grandparents, immediately test out their two-step when Watson and his band take the stage at 9:30.
Owner James White’s mission certainly has remained the same since day one nearly a half century ago.
“A honky-tonk like the Spoke is a place where you get your best girl and come on out and have a good time and drink your cold beer and dance the Texas two-step to live music,” he says, smiling. (He’s always smiling.) “That’s what it’s all about — have a little fun in your life. You get a taste of Texas when you come here. Therefore, I’ve never changed anything.
“Well,” he continues with a hearty laugh, “beer’s no longer 25 cents a bottle like when I opened up 48 years ago.”
Willie Nelson certainly remembers those halcyon days. The country legend frequently played the Spoke early on and remains a loyal supporter today. In fact, the night before CMT Edge visited, Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel had played a private party at the Spoke. Imagine: Willie Nelson jamming at a party that holds only your closest couple hundred friends.
“Jerry Jeff Walker came on by last night, too, just to practice up on a couple songs,” White said proudly. “It’s always interesting to have those big name stars, and Willie would probably be my favorite.”
A close competitor: George Strait.
White fondly recalls the nights the future superstar and his Ace in the Hole band played at the Spoke for “$400-$500” during the 1970s.
“I always remember that George Strait was here for seven years,” he says. “George opened up for Alvin Crow right here at the Broken Spoke in 1975. He was supposed to play the night he was up in Nashville recording ‘Unwound,’ his first hit. The drummer said, ‘George is up in Nashville recording.’ I thought, ‘Well, I’ve heard that a lot of times before and best of luck to him.’
“He came back, and it was a hit.”