I MEET JAMES WHITE on a sunny day in late December at the Broken Spoke, a bar and dance hall in Austin, Texas. It has low ceilings, a concrete slab dance floor and a dining room flanked by glittering Nudie suits. The phone rings constantly: In a few days, the Spoke will host its fifty-third New Year’s Eve. White, 77, will sing with the band. He’ll wear a Western shirt custom-sequined by his daughter, Ginny. Terri, Ginny’s sister, will give dance lessons, to cowboys of the bona fide and bought-on-eBay variety. Distinguishing one from the other isn’t the point. “Cold beer, good whiskey, good-looking girls and a good band” are the Spoke’s commodities, but authenticity – strengthened by time, irony, fame – is its product. Outside, a centuries-old oak tree stands next to a luxury condominium.
I call what I’m wearing now my Incognito. It’s kind of a disguise. Something comfortable when I’m more or less going to the ranch or doing some kind of physical labour. My Image is different: The vest. The hat. I usually wear a Stetson or a Resistol, or a hat from a maker called Shorty in Oklahoma City. I like a Silver Belly hat, which means it’s not white, it’s a little off-white. It’s not gray, but it’s close to gray. Sometimes they call it platinum mist, or a horseshoe, because it’s got a little horseshoe up there.
A hat tells the story of what you do. If you’re a bull rider, different hat. Barrel racer, different hat. I wear a cutter’s crease, which is for cutting horses – it’s an event. The only difference between a cutting horse and a cattleman is a dimple here on each side. George Strait wears a roping hat, because he’s a roper. The double X on the side is the fineness of the felt. 10X is cheapo. 100X is $1,000. My hat is about $500. Then there are the hats that we call a Kmart, Walmart special. Some people from out of town come here with those cheap straw hats, it’s kinda like a heehaw hat, comical. But we like it. They’re trying. They’re proud to have it on.
My daughter Ginny makes my shirts for me. She buys them and then adds the beads and rhinestones and sequins. This one is based on a [Nathan] Turk design. The original Turks and Nudies here are my dad’s. He rode in every parade in Southern California. Rhinestones started out with cowboys, and then the country music singers took it up. Roy Rogers said, when I ride into an area I want my shirt to light up, so every kid can see me all the way up in the top of the stands.
In 1964, I had just got out of the army. I served three years, here in Austin at the missile base, and then they shipped me off to Okinawa for six months. I had a craving to hear country music. We didn’t have no cell phones, no computer, no touch at all with anybody back home. I figured it’d be kinda neat to open up a place on my own. I came out here underneath that big old oak tree, and there was all open land and I looked over the pasture and cattle. We started building September 25, 1964. I opened November 10, 1964. So we did that pretty damn quick. They’d never let you build this today. I didn’t have a blueprint. It’s all up here. Every drunk in Austin worked on this place when I built it. And those same drunks became my customers. When I opened up beer was 25 cents a bottle. Slap a quarter down, say buy me a beer.
Back then on a Saturday night, you always wore just about the best clothes you had. Suit and tie and a cowboy hat and boots. Put a little makeup on or something. And no effects on your pants. No holey jeans! If you had holes, your mother would patch them up. Coming out of the depression, everybody was proud of the fact that they weren’t poor. I wore my brother’s hand-me-down clothes. It was different times. Today everybody dresses real casual.
For a while when we first started going, the cowboys were clean shaven, with short hair, maybe a moustache. Then the hippies came, and the cowboys didn’t like the hippies too much. They’d pop off and say, why don’t you get a haircut? I didn’t really have fights over it, though. One thing about the flower children is they didn’t like to fight. One night, I booked a fundraiser for Lloyd Doggett, who’s now our federal rep. The band was Freda and the Firedogs. About 500 people showed up, and 80 percent was hippies. We enjoyed watching them come, they had these weird looking dresses, and were driving all kinds of beat-up looking vehicles. Now that’s hard to draw 500 people to a fundraiser. And they drink a lot of beer and didn’t cause no trouble! The thing is, they didn’t know how to dance. We called their dance the hippie hop, real fast in a circle kind of like a hillbilly hoedown. It was good times.
I started booking more bands, like Asleep at the Wheel, Alvin Crowe. Around that same time Willie Nelson moved to Austin. At first he was clean shaven, then he kind of got a goatee and started getting his hair a little longer. And that’s what kind of helped, Willie’s influence, being able to play in front of rednecks and hippies. The same cowboys, their hair started to get longer, too, and they started growing beards. Nowadays people dress up more than they used to. You get the bachelorette parties, the women come out in high heels, but a lot of times they take them off and dance in stockings. The women like to wear the bling, similar to what I wear.
Some people ask me how long my family has been in Texas. In 1846 my great great grandfather, him and a group of Texas rangers, camped out where the capital is today and forded the Colorado River on horseback. They was in the last indian battle just over that hill. And my great great great, he was in the damn war of 1812. That’s a long time ago.
I came from a place about a mile from here where there was a farm. I have a scar on my leg where a horse threw me off. I don’t even remember that but they told me about it, my grandmother and mother. That’s where old Betsy Lou reared up! I’ve always been around horses. As a kid, sometimes they’d dress us up in cowboy clothes. We had a pair of boots in our family that kind of went from my brother to me, and then when I outgrew them, there was another child in the family. They were black with a lone star on it, a white star.
Nobody’s ever been in the honky-tonk business as long as I have. They’d have to start really young. The business has been good to me; it’s kept me and my wife young. We meet people from all over the world. And it’s easier for me to talk to these people. Sometimes, people in their twenties, it’s a bit hard to communicate with them. They didn’t have to scratch hard for their money or whatever. We’re from South Austin. We always had to scratch a little bit harder to make it than the people over in the rich part of town. But that’s never bothered me. I never did think that I wouldn’t make it. People ask, are you gonna keep it going. I say, as long as it’s standing up.
Alice Hines is Vestoj’s online editor and a writer in New York City.