The Hall of State at Dallas’ Fair Park might seem an unlikely place to celebrate a venerable Austin honky-tonk. But it all made sense on April 14, when the Dallas Historical Society held its inaugural spring fundraiser to honor Annetta and James White, owners of the state capital’s famed Broken Spoke dance hall.
The party, dubbed Honky Tonk Heaven, was the brainchild of fundraiser co-chairs Laura and Ken Capps, who, years ago, were engaged onstage at the Whites’ nightclub. The Cappses saw the event as a way not only to recognize the Broken Spoke and to highlight the “plight” of Texas’ historical dance halls—many of them are closing down, it seems—but to attract more young people to the good work of the DHS.
What better way to focus on the state’s struggling dance halls, Ken said, “than to highlight one that’s doing well.” The evening’s roughly 200 guests—including Deborah and Nigel Brown, Craig Holcomb and Hector Garcia, John Perkins, Karl Chiao, Betty Houser, Randall Austin McGehee, Veletta Lill, Lisa and Kendall Laughlin, Anne Barclay Reed, Nancy Shelton, Carolyn Speed and Gwendolyn Phillips—quickly got a chance to do just that. After grabbing boxes of popcorn, they started the evening’s festivities by watching an award-winning documentary about the Whites’ nightclub, which James founded in 1964.
The 75-minute film, titled “Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke,” presented a complete and colorful picture of the popular Austin club, which has featured famous country music artists ranging from Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills to Willie Nelson and Dale Watson. Much of the flick focused on the Whites and especially the bluntly humorous James, who’s 79. “I’m in charge of BS and PR,” he said. “My wife’s the workin’ half of the family.”
Later, during a panel discussion with filmmakers Brenda Mitchell and Jenny Wren, and Donna Marie Miller, the author of a book about the Broken Spoke, James added: “We never claimed to be fancy. We do claim to be real. And we have heart and soul.”
He proved that a little later, when everyone repaired to the Great Hall for a live performance by Eleven Hundred Springs, a successful, Red Dirt/Outlaw Country band from Dallas. The group kicked off its set with the old C&W standard titled “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” with James taking the lead vocal on the evening’s first song, just as he typically does at the Spoke. Then the band worked its way through such classic tunes as “Love’s Gonna Live Here” by Buck Owens and Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm,” as well as their hits like, “The Only Thing She Left Me Was the Blues.”
As lead guitarist Matt Hillyer and the guys rocked out with their original, twangy brand of honky-tonk, expert two-steppers flocked to the dance floor, temporarily turning the Great Hall into a North Texas version of the Whites’ nightclub. Among them were several Spoke regulars who’d come up from Austin for the special evening, including Tamara Caggiano, Jason Henley, and Elisa Farrell. By the time we had to bid goodnight to DHSers like Executive Director Molly Bogen—hey, it was long past our bedtime!—the music was still playing and the dancers were still dancing, just as they should at a genuine Texas honky-tonk.
* Photo credit: Randall Austin McGehee ** Photo provided by Dallas Historical Society