The Broken Spoke

[Published in The Saturday Paper, February 20/2016]

Two-Step Program

Everything is bigger in Texas, from the hats and trucks, to the stories and steaks. But nothing is bigger than the legend of The Broken Spoke, the last of the true Texas dance halls, writes Samuel J. Fell.

She’s only about five foot tall, but Terri White isn’t one to be trifled with. She stands in the middle of the polished concrete dancefloor, in the large back room of legendary Austin honky tonk The Broken Spoke, hands on her hips and through narrowed eyes, looks at us all.

The men, around twenty of us, are lined up down one side, female partners opposite on the other. White is barking orders, tells the women to step right. My wife, Claire, accidentally steps left, the only one to do so, like in a Three Stooges film. White’s eyes narrow further. “You’re going to be my troublemaker, aren’t you,” she says to Claire, who turns bright red and tries not to laugh.

White has been teaching novices like us the Texas Two-Step for years. It’s a southern tradition, and people travel from miles around to learn from the little master, who four nights a week bullies and cajoles, snaps at and occasionally encourages any and all willing to slide their two left feet across the floor.

The lesson runs for an hour or so, the house band providing the music, the dancers themselves the entertainment – for a seasoned Two-Stepper, it can’t be a pretty sight.

After an hour or so however, White has us more or less Two-Stepping under our own steam; her job is done, and so the billed band – Austin mainstay James Hand – step up and start their set, and from the low-lit areas surrounding the floor, the regular crowd materialise, the locals who know the Step, who specifically come out to the Spoke on a Friday night to dance. A lot of them are good, really good.

Texas has a reputation around the world as being a rough, gruff, outdoorsy kind of place, where men are men and don’t mess with us. Which makes it all the more fascinating watching these rough, gruff types gliding expertly around the dancefloor – it quickly becomes apparent that this is a normal Friday night out for them, time spent in a true dance hall where the gents ask the ladies to dance, a few beers are put away and a damn fine time is had by all. It’s enchanting in a way, a glimpse of that fabled southern hospitality, where being a gentleman is key, and dancing isn’t a dirty word.

This year, the Spoke celebrates its fifty-first anniversary. Opened in 1964 by James White, Terri’s father, it’s now an institution, the “last of the true Texas dance halls”. From the outside it looks to be on its last legs, leaning slightly to the left, a relic from a bygone era. Inside, holes in the low ceiling have been patched with bits of wood or tin, nailed on, a quick patch job. It smells a little odd too, a mixture of stale beer, fried meat and Texas sweat.

But it’s the real thing, a genuine tonk toward the outer edge of Austin on Sth Lamar Boulevard, the big through road that runs straight and true down to the river and across to downtown. Virtually nothing has changed since the early days when Willie Nelson would perform, prior to becoming famous, when Bob Wills would drop in for chicken-fried steak, when Dolly Parton, Roy Acuff and George Strait would turn up to either play or just listen – such is the lure of the Spoke.

It used to be outside the city limits, but as Austin’s population has swelled, the developers have swooped in and so it’s now sandwiched between two high-rise apartment blocks, its low-set build and dusty parking lot in stark contrast to its surrounds. Which is part of its appeal – no matter how steady the march of progress, the Spoke has remained as it began, a getaway from the pressures and realities of life, a little shack where you can dance, drink and have a good ol’ time.

Having spent an hour sliding around the polished concrete, I’m in need of some respite and so head out the front where I find a quiet spot in the carpark amongst the dusty pick-up trucks to roll a smoke and generally soak in the old country ambience. It’s around this time that Tom the Texan walks up to me, tells me he’s lost his smokes and can he bot one of mine. Fine with me, I tell him. He rolls a skinny one quickly, no filter, sticks it between his lips and pulls a box of matches from his pocket.

Tom the Texan is at least six and a half feet tall, bull neck, big hat and a hanging gut. He leans back against the hood of the closest truck and gets to talking. Tells me he works for the Texas something-or-other, I don’t quite catch it, but he emphasises his narrative by pulling out from under his shirt a large gold badge on black leather, hanging from his neck like some sort of ominous good luck charm.

Turns out Tom the Texan is a bodyguard of some sort, in town in this instance looking after one of the bigger acts playing the Austin City Limits music festival, down by the river at Zilker Park. He tells me it’s his night off, hence the visit to the Spoke, somewhere he comes whenever he’s in town, but he won’t tell me which artist he’s charged with. Later on I look at the festival program and figure it’s either Deadmau5 or Drake, The Weekend or Florence & The Machine.

He tells me he worked for eight years for an Iranian businessman who owned a couple of clubs up in Dallas, and that he looked after one of the cast of Jersey Shore when he came to Texas. “I thought, don’t bring that Yankee down here,” Tom says, “but he was all right. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”

He finishes his smoke and shakes my hand, tells me to call him Tom and that his close friends call him TFT. “Trick Fuckin’ Tom,” he elaborates with a big laugh. I’m not sure if that’s because he’s a tricky fella, or because he’s partial to ladies of the evening, but he’s off into the bar before I can ask, leaving me by myself to wonder in silence.

Back inside, owner James White has jumped up on stage and is singing with the band. He’s decked out in cowboy bling – ten-gallon hat, shining belt buckle, outrageous red western shirt, what look like snake-skin boots. White used to be in the army, but is now living the honky tonk dream. Word is he writes a mean country song to boot, loves to get up with the band to sing.

I shake his hand as we leave, a little later on, tell him we came a long way to be here. His hands are surprisingly soft for one who looks like they’ve done it all. He has a twinkle in his eye, you can tell he likes hearing how far people have come to see his place.

We walk out the front into the carpark and order an Uber, which seems far more in step with the towering, gleaming apartment blocks on either side of us than where we’ve just come from. Testament to its history and derelict elegance though, that the Spoke is still standing. Albeit with a slight lean.

Trumped

[UNPUBLISHED]

The rain has stopped. It’s cooler now, the aroma of wet earth rising and mingling with the cigarette stench and the smell of fish off the barbeque, long since eaten, digested; we’re on to bourbon now, beer chasers, rolling new smokes and lighting them with the stubbs of the old.

A clutch of moths hatched somewhere in the garden earlier today and so the lights out the back are being bombarded. Tiny flying insects chasing their sun. Bumping and buzzing with a ferocious intent, getting stuck in your eyelashes, your ears.

Aside from their buzz though, the croak of the odd frog, the cicadas, it’s quiet. Claire’s gone to bed and I’ve shut down the endless Twitter staccato; the rolling analysis from the New York Times; the ABC; Fox News; all the rest. Shut down the apps on my phone, closed all the windows on my laptop.

A couple of hours ago, Donald J. Trump was named the forty-fifth president of the United States, a notion which, only a few hours before that, was regarded as a long shot, a laugh, a joke, and a bad one at that.

Earlier, we’d sat and followed the results as the storm front came over, lessening the humidity, the grey sky lowering as its moist loins girded and eventually birthed upon the dry and crackling north coast a torrent. We watched as Electoral College votes stacked up, and even though this was happening half a world away, we kept watching, swapping stories we’d heard via various news sources throughout the day.

I was on deadline, not an urgent one, but closing in, three days with the majority of reportage behind me, three days in which to ruminate and write. I let it lie though, gave away half a day, pulled down the rabbit hole by the events unfolding with alarming rapidity across the Pacific.

I, like everyone else, have spent the better part of a year smirking at memes, nodding with faux-educated agreement at analysis, talking with friends and work mates about how this imposter dares set foot upon the hallowed turf that is a presidential race, and yet here we are now. An angry white male, about to take up a post in The Oval Office, in The White House.

Indeed, it’s never been whiter.

At some stage, not long before the heavens opened, we talked with my sister on Skype and the three of us asked each other over and over how this could be happening. My phone, open to some graphic or other, sat on the table next to my laptop and mid-conversation, I’d lean to the right to check results. My sister, two thousand kilometres to the south, would periodically do the same.

Claire’s sister rang at some point. They talked briefly out the back. Incredulity was the tone that floated in through the open screen door.

As we shut it down, maybe an hour ago, the analysis was starting to filter through. What next? What does this mean? Where to from here? I don’t know and don’t pretend to. All I know is this has ceased to be a sick joke and is now a sicker reality. It’s the uncertainty that’s the killer, the feeling that anything at all could happen, and that most (if not all) of it won’t be of the notion that respect, inclusion and diversity is the key to a new world order.

The uncertainty, that’s the killer.

The rain has started again. The moths and frogs and cicadas have gone. There’s another storm brewing.

Samuel J. Fell

ALBUM – Archie Roach

[Published in Rolling Stone, November 2016]

Archie Roach

Let Love Rule

Liberation Music

 

Archie Roach’s tenth record is a gem. At its core is the theme of love, but overall it’s an eleven song-long message of hope, “what I wish for” as Roach himself says. Covering a range of styles, Let Love Rule centres around his deep and rough-edged voice, the mainstay through these songs which paint vivid pictures of a theme which in no way seems clichéd or overused, not in Roach’s hands anyway. 

The addition of the Dhungala Children’s Choir and the Short Black Opera Choir on the title track and No More Bleeding is a masterstroke; Jen Anderson’s violin throughout plays a pivotal role; the songwriting is poignant and as strong as ever, on an album which fair oozes soul and honesty.

4/5

 

Samuel J. Fell

 

Key Tracks: Let Love Rule, Mighty Clarence River, No More Bleeding

ALBUM – Wayne Hancock

[Published in The Sydney Morning Herald / The Age, December 09/2016]

Wayne Hancock
Slingin’ Rhythm
Bloodshot Records

With his eleventh studio album, Wayne ‘The Train’ Hancock has proven, once again, that he is indeed the master of juke joint swing. The Austin, Texas-based Hancock, who’s been active since the late ‘70s (although not releasing his debut record until 1995), delivers here a set that embodies the foot-stompin’ American south; a melding of western swing, hillbilly and country, along with elements of jazz, to create a sound that, while a throw-back, comes across as fresh today as it would have been in the day of Bob Wills.

With a crack band behind him, Hancock is at the height of his powers – the humid and slow Dog Day Blues, the rollicking title track, the jazz-inflected instrumental Over Easy, a fine reimagining of Merle Travis’ Divorce Me C.O.D. The man’s laconic delivery, his mastery of the form, all this combines to create a record which just flows – it’s not forced, it’s not pre-meditated, it’s not slick and sharp. Nope, it’s a Friday night in a lean-to tonk somewhere in Texas, sweat running down your back as you shuffle across the dance floor, cold Lone Star beer in hand – a cracking release from the master.
4/5

Samuel J. Fell