Honky Tonk Heaven: The Legend of the Broken Spoke

It’s not a lifestyle, it’s a life.

(2016) Documentary (Wild Blue Yonder) James White, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Annetta White, Jon Langford, Gary P. Nunn, Josh Delk, Cornell Hurd, Bruce Robison, Dale Watson, Jesse Dayton, Tracey Dear, Terri White, Joe Nick Patoski, Ginny White, Jessie Matthieson, Will Wynn, Ray Benson, Mike Harmier, Denise Hosek, Alvin Crow, James Hand, Pauline Reese, Julie Johnson. Directed by Sam Wainwright Douglas and Julie Mitchell

The Broken Spoke in South Austin sits smack on South Lamar Boulevard, the heart of the highly developed South Lamar Corridor. Brand new condos and multi-purpose buildings surround it. The building is incongruous, a ramshackle wooden bar with a dirt parking lot and a beautiful oak tree out front.

James White built the Spoke by hand back in 1964, assisted by as he puts it “Every drunk in South Austin.” When it rains, the roof leaks like a sieve, necessitating a corrugated tin roof being placed in between the shingles and the roof in order to keep the patrons dry. It may not look like much but it is a piece of history, a place that matters in a city where music matters almost as much as dancing, where a good country fried steak matters as much as a cold Lonestar beer and where the great and the not-so-great have played on its tiny stage with a ceiling so low that taller performers often have to slouch down to keep from banging their head on it.

On that stage have played country music royalty, from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys to Ernest Tubbs to George Strait to a young clean-cut Willie Nelson. All who have played that stage have understood the fundamental truth of why they’re there; get the customers to dance. Dancing, in Texas, is at least as important as walking. The music, says one interviewee, is an excuse to get people to touch each other in public.

This documentary celebrates a lot of things; not just the Spoke itself although that is the primary focus but also Austin as one of the world’s music capitals and Texas which is not just a lifestyle but a life. As the world has changed, dance halls and honky tonks have all but disappeared. There is a difference between the two; the former is where you take your wife to dance, the latter is where you take someone else’s wife to dance. You’ve gotta love Texas.

The White family has made this their second home for half a century. James and his wife Annetta have tended to the business with care; James is the public face, attired in brilliant rhinestones and embroidered shirts. He greets the customers, introduces the bands (and sometimes sings with them) and shares stories with those willing to listen (which is just about everybody). He is the main focus of the documentary and they couldn’t find a better one; he’s charming, garrulous and full of great stories. He’s a born entertainer but not in a show biz sense; he just lifts up the spirits of anyone he’s around. While he takes care of the front of the house, his wife sees to the books but also the kitchen where those killer country fried steaks are made and tends bar. She spends a lot of time on-camera as well and she is just as full of piss and vinegar as any Texas woman is. The last shot of the movie – of James and Annetta dancing a Texas waltz – is beautiful and sums up how close this couple is to one another. It really does bring a tear to one’s eye and sums up what the movie is really all about..

Their daughters Ginny and Terri also work at the Spoke; Terri conducts dancing lessons before the bands go onstage, and Ginny embroiders the shirts her father wears as well as assists her mother with the running of the Spoke on the business side. She is the heir apparent and feels a keen responsibility to keep it going when her parents finally hang up their rhinestones, a day that she doesn’t particularly want to see come. Her voice breaks when she discusses it.

The history of the Spoke is discussed and there are plenty of archival photos that are absolutely amazing. There is also a kind of tour of dance halls in various rural Texas towns that mostly stand silent and empty. Throughout the movie you get a sense of Texas and what it’s like to be part of that great state. Those that are in charge of such things really ought to designate this film a Texas treasure; there aren’t many films that give the audience a sense of what it’s like to be a Texan as well as this one does.

I’m not a particular fan of country music as I’ve said in other reviews although I respect the relationship the musicians have with their fans. I will say that even if you can’t stand country music, you will likely still find this fascinating and enjoyable. It’s not just Honky Tonk music that this film is all about; it’s about a life and a tradition that is still beloved and revered. I’ve been to Austin on occasion and caught my share of live music there in some of their justifiably famous venues (like Antone’s and Emo’s) but I do know that the next time I’m in the Texas capital, I’m going to make a jaunt down South Lamar and park my ass at the bar at the Spoke and maybe order me a chicken fried steak. While I’m there, I’m going to be sure to shake the hand of James White and thank him for keeping the legend alive for so long – and I’ll be honored to do all of those things.

REASONS TO GO: Even those not into country music will find something to love about this movie. James White is a fascinating study. Nicely does the history without dwelling too much on it. The film is as Texas as it comes.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a parade of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Nothing that isn’t suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the band is playing, standing on the dance floor is not allowed. You must be dancing or get off the dance floor.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Supergirl

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