Documentarians Brenda Greene Mitchell and Sam Wainwright Douglas share their unbridled affection for a decades-old Texas dance hall in “Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke.” This storied mecca for boot-scooters and two-steppers may not be much to look at it — truth to tell, it might require major renovation to qualify as ramshackle — but it has survived and thrived since 1964 on Austin’s South Lamar Boulevard, even as condo high-rises have, quite literally, sprung up all around it. Owner-operators James and Annetta White have plenty of stories to tell, as do frequent Broken Spoke performers like Willie Nelson and Dale Watson, adding to a tasty mix of music and memories that doubtless will make the playlist of many PBS stations, and should wind up a top-selling DVD/Blu-ray souvenir in what passes for a gift shop at the Austin honky-tonk.
James White freely admits that, back in the day, he wasn’t able to afford highly skilled labor to the build the Broken Spoke. Indeed, he says, at some time or another since the ’60s, “Every drunk in South Austin has worked on this place.” Over the years, the slipshod construction has necessitated some, ahem, imaginative patch-up work — including the installation of a tin roof beneath the original ceiling to shelter patrons from leakage during rainfall.
But neither the haphazard structure nor the relatively tiny stage has kept the Broken Spoke from attracting an impressing array of country music performers, ranging from Western Swing icon Bob Wills to living legend George Strait, and drawing international throngs to its well-trod dance floor during the past five decades.
Dancing is practically mandatory at the Broken Spoke, a place where, as one veteran performer explains, entertainers both famous and obscure are expected to “play music for men and women who want to touch each other in public.” Terri White, James and Annetta’s daughter, is on hand most evenings to teach anxious newcomers how to two-step. (Another daughter, Ginny White-Peacock, sews the rhinestone-bedecked outfits that James wears on stage while greeting customers, introducing musical acts and, occasionally, singing with the bands.) Usually, another interviewee notes, there is a marked difference between dance halls and honky-tonks — the former is where you take your wife, while the latter is where you take someone else’s wife. But the Broken Spoke prides itself on being the best of both worlds.
(Not incidentally, “Honky Tonk Heaven” celebrates Austin as a whole as the live music capital of the known universe, primarily because it is a place where people are encouraged to dance — unlike, say, Nashville. “They don’t dance in Tennessee,” claims a Broken Spoke regular. “I don’t know what the problem is. Maybe too much religion.”)
Clocking in at a trim but satisfying 75 minutes, “Honky Tonk Heaven” indicates the enduring and widespread appeal of the Austin institution it celebrates — look quickly, and you see photos of folks like Michael Caine and Dan Rather among the pictures of celebrity performers and patrons — even as it discreetly raises the question of whether such a no-frills, down-home venue can survive amid the explosive modernization of Austin.
James and Annetta White, whose long personal and professional union has been the driving force behind the Broken Spoke, appear determined to keep the family business going as long as possible. Will the day ever come when the last call is announced? Anyone who sees and enjoys this entertaining documentary certainly will hope that the song never ends.